This PW article by Judith Rosen actually came out last, but I got so busy with life—and the BTBA longlist write-ups—that I never had a chance to post about it . . .
Entitled “Indie Presses Find a Home on Campuses,” the piece focuses on the handful of presses located on university campuses, what the advantages are the presses and the universities, and how this model functions.
When South End Press relocated from Cambridge, Mass., to the Brooklyn campus of Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York last fall, it joined a handful of presses that have formed partnerships with universities. In some cases, these presses have been launched by academic institutions, which have created such imprints as Open Letter at the University of Rochester or Apprentice House at Loyola University in Baltimore. No matter the ownership, these houses more closely resemble indie presses like Akashic Books than traditional university presses with their more scholarly bent and editorial boards. [. . .]
Campus presses can strengthen existing academic and outreach programs as well as assist universities in developing new ones. When poetry publisher Alice James Books began forging what has grown into a 15-year relationship with the University of Maine at Farmington, it coincided with the university’s decision to offer a B.F.A. in creative writing. “The B.F.A. program existed a few years before Alice James came along, but we were fairly close on the heels, and definitely helped shape the program into what it is today,” said executive director Carey Salerno. This summer the press will participate in a new University of Maine at Farmington program for younger students, a weeklong writing camp for high schoolers.
There’s a section about Open Letter, Three Percent, and the University of Rochester’s translation programs as well, pointing out the various ways the Press and academic programs are intertwined.
It’s interesting to me how many non-university presses there are at universities these days—including a few that I wasn’t previously aware of, such as Ahsahta Press and Apprentice House. There’s a long article that could be written here about the fall of the current publishing model and how this arrangement offers hope for the future of literary publishing. . . . But that’s for another day. In the meantime, one book that really gets into this issue, and is definitely worth checking out, is The Business of Books by Andre Schiffrin.
Over at Publishing Perspectives, Emily Williams continues her series of articles on scouting with one about why more books aren’t published in English translation. Her focus is more on “large scale houses that compete for high profile submissions” than on the small, indie, nonprofits like Open Letter and Dalkey Archive and Melville House and New Directions that do do a number of books in translation, making this piece an interesting complement to a lot of the things we’ve written about here. (And thanks for the shout-out, Emily!)
Right from the start she hits one the bleak cycle of translations in today’s book market:
A vicious cycle develops where the difficulty of placing books in the US makes it less likely foreign publishers and agents will invest in packaging their authors to submit here, which makes it harder for US editors to develop an understanding of foreign markets and what authors might be the best match for their audience. This, in turn, arguably contributes to the scattershot nature of publishing translations here and the chances that the books that do get published will find success.
And if you want to catch a glimpse of the differences in editorial practices between a small press and a large one, check this out:
There is no comparably mature translation market for any one language in the English speaking world, and the fact that books coming into the American market come from many different countries and languages makes it harder for editors here to develop the expertise in what any market has to offer, and which books from that country have the best shot of appealing to American readers. The books that are sold for translation here are more likely to come through the handful of US agents with close ties to one region or another, who are themselves usually working through professional relationships with particular agents or publishers abroad. What books by foreign authors that end up crossing an American editor’s desk, then, depends in no small part on chance and good connections. Rachel Kahan, a Senior Editor at Putnam who reads fluently in Spanish, admits, “If they don’t have a US agent and they aren’t being conspicuously packaged for the US sale, which is the case a lot of the time, I tend to luck into things.”
There are some instances where the absence of an American agent offers a savvy editor the advantage of speed, but in most cases American representation makes things easier.
“Not all editors in the business have relationships with their colleagues overseas or with foreign agents, so if there’s an American on board, I think in some cases it lends the project a little more visibility,” said Kahan. “And also if there’s an American agent there’s usually a translation or a partial translation of the book itself. That [US] subagent will have packaged it in a way that’s the most accessible and maximizes its potential for the American market. Whereas when it’s been an author that I’ve discovered, then I’m doing all of that work myself. [I’m] the one saying, ‘You really have to trust me here, I think this is going to work, I’m staking my reputation on it.’”
The article—which you should really read in its entirety—ends on a much more positive note than it begins, although for a literary elitist like myself, it’s a bit bittersweet . . . Anyway, talking about how to make a book in translation sell:
Kahan emphatically agrees, citing authors Marek Halter, the French-speaking author of religious historical fiction whose books she acquired while working at Crown, and Luis Miguel Rocha, the Portuguese author of the thrillers The Last Pope and The Holy Bullet, which she publishes at Putnam.
“Both speak reasonably good English and are very charismatic and very interesting,” says Kahan, “and in both cases they came to New York, they met our sales people, they were involved in the publicity of the book. And, yes, that made a really big difference.”
These success stories have given Kahan the impetus to continue to look for great authors from abroad. “I know it’s very often said, Americans don’t read books in translation, and publishers aren’t interested in foreign writers, and that is not the case,” she asserts. “We’re not buying as much in other languages as our counterparts overseas are, but we are definitely buying them and there are certainly ones who break out. The first book I bought by Marek Halter [Sarah] has sold over 200,000 copies. They do work. They’re harder to make work, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s this idea that American publishers just throw up a wall and don’t take a chance on writers who don’t write in English, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
The latest entry in Scott Esposito’s fascinating series of interviews with independent publishers about publishing during a recession is now available online. This time he talks with Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull, and one of the smartest (and most articulate) people in the field when it comes to talking about the business of books.
Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?
Richard Nash: There are several distinct things going on at once. The first is the macro-economic problem which is indeed giving cause for gloom as it has caused a serious drop on aggregate adult trade book sales, greater than any recession heretofore.
The second is the shift on what media consumers purchase, and how they consume it, occurring for books, music, television and film—because it is the smallest of those industries, and because its technology—the printed book—was the most robust and fine-tuned of the analog technologies, it is only know we’re starting to see the impact. And the impact is currently less on the industry itself; it’s more that the cumulative effect of the changes from other industries, chiefly the amount of content consumed online, is drawing people away from the printed book format. The shift can be cause for gloom if you’re of the handwringing temperament, but it is far more an opportunity to rid the publishing business of a lot of cant and laziness and arrogance.
The third is the effect of all the other, non-consumer-facing change sin technology, especially that of supply chain management, in combination with the above two trends. Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they’ll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they’re printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title. The macroeconomic situation has made this worse, and the collapse in music sales (pace the second observation) has hurt retailers like Tower, Virgin, Borders, putting more pressure on the books to perform . . . This phenomenon is cause for gloom, though it has been going on for years and won’t stop really until there’s been a significant shift to digital download of books, and to subscriptions for direct-to—consumer physical books.
And his comments about Anita Elberse’s article on the blockbuster model and how this model will play out over time are both hilarious and accurate:
RN: Oh she’s really not done much research—she’s only looked at the corporate model, and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained. [. . .]
Corporate houses were already shifting to publishing fewer titles, and the recession will accelerate that process. They will continue to follow Elberse’s model, which will cause them to become smaller and smaller companies, since chasing blockbusters has never worked in books except one or two years out of every four or five, when they’re lucky. There will be layoffs in all the down years, which will be the majority, until they’re really just backlists with a sporadic hit factory attached.
All of Scott’s interviews are really interesting, in part because there does seem to be a greater awareness among independent presses about how things are changing and about what business models/strategies need to be instituted in order to survive and continue serving the reading public.
Paradoxically, the proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands. [. . .]
In today’s fickle marketplace, the Internet—with blogs, videos, Twitter, and other promotional tools like Amazon’s Author Stores—is the modern-day equivalent to hand-selling. [. . .] In a way, authors are empowered in this new model, provided they can leverage their networks into living, breathing communities who have a stake in—and benefit from—an author’s ballooning platform.
With the examples in the article being people like James Patterson, John Grisham, and Mitch Albom (where’s Tom Clancy? Dude has videogames named after him), I’m glad Jill Priluck pointed out the insanity and danger of this all:
The overemphasis on platforms means that authors sink into brand-speak to get their projects sold, even though their writing—and often their reputations—gets short-circuited. With limited choices, they trade depth for instant gratification, visibility, and higher advances. Ironically, their longevity, supposedly the marker of a good brand, falls by the wayside. It seems that unlike a detergent or a car, an author who is branded too quickly will often fizzle out just as fast.
This “author as product” mentality is pretty insane and really devalues the work itself. It also completely fits in with the changes that have gone on in the publishing world over the past couple decades.
Through mergers and corporate acquisitions, any “branding” that publishing lines once had (and by “brand,” I mean editorial vision and identity, something readers can recognize and appreciate, not the Open Letter XBox game) has been completely dissolved, and the name on the spine of a lot of books is sort of meaningless. So the author’s name/reputation/brand is more important than the publishing line, something that is the exact opposite at independent houses, which are often introducing unknown authors to the reading public.
Andre Schriffrin’s The Business of Books (which should be required reading for anyone in publishing, but is strangely out-of-print) gets into this exact issue, especially when he takes Michael Korda to task for his lackadaisical attitude toward this shift—and the cheapening of publishing as a whole—in his publishing memoir, Another Life:
Korda describes these authors, on which the firm’s fortunes were increasingly to rely, with remarkable disdain. They are demanding, their clothing is vulgar, they do not know the right places in London at which to order custom-made shoes, or the appropriate restaurants at which to eat—subjects on which Korda is very well informed. At the same time, he describes their books as the unavoidable wave of the future as publishing becomes increasingly tied to the entertainment industry, and the styles and values of Hollywood become dominant. Celebrity books are the titles that will make or break firms and Korda, with his boss, Richard Snyder, are determined that it will be the former.
In the time Simon & Schuster was bought by Viacom, owners of Paramount Pictures, and for a brief while it was even renamed Paramount Books. While Korda is frank in describing the economic pressures of these changes, he is nonetheless firmly wedded to the assumption that these are the books on which publishing should focus, and he is proud of his successes with them, if not of his associations with their authors.
Schiffrin then related a bit about Korda attacking Harold Robbins for Robbins’s shame at going from a literary author to a commercial one, concluding:
It seems that in today’s publishing it is only authors who despise themselves for selling out. Publishers merely anticipate inevitable trends.
Yesterday morning, I got all bent out of shape about Anita Elberse’s “Blockbuster or Bust” article in the Wall Street Journal. I wasn’t the only one—GalleyCat has a few nice responses, including this quote from a senior editor at a major house: “many of the bestsellers that keep us afloat are not the blockbusters, they’re the ones that we bought for relatively little (six figures or less) and sold the hell out of.” Although I don’t have any hard data, it does seem like the majority of “money makers” for presses are surprises. (Even at the nonprofit press level, I doubt that Graywolf had any idea how well Out Stealing Horses was going to do.)
We did get a rather lengthy comment about this post, essentially defending the blockbuster model. (In addition to a really interesting one about B&N and Borders.) “Awasky” brought up some interesting points, and since this sort of “business of publishing” thing is an obsession of mine, I thought I’d reprint and respond to some of his/her points. (And take a chance to publicly thank him/her for responding in such detail.) If anyone has any thoughts, objections, etc., etc., please feel free to post them below.
As someone who works for one of the big trade publishing houses, I was sent the WSJ article. From what I’ve seen within the industry, it’s completely right. At the moment, the only books whose sales continue to be strong are the blockbusters—if publishing is going to survive at all, it needs to focus its attention on blockbusters rather than splitting that attention over hundreds (or thousands) of books that barely break even.
I have to say, this seems a bit tautological. Of course the blockbusters are the only books whose sales continue to be strong—that’s why they’re blockbusters! But no, seriously, my objection isn’t with the attention paid to books that are taking off, or have found an audience, it’s the idea of paying obscene advances in hopes of creating a blockbuster. Oh, and I totally agree—Elberse does describe how the industry tends to function. That doesn’t mean it has to function that way, or that this current dominant model is the best way for publishers to function.
By applying moral good or evil to what is the reality of the book publishing business right now, I find I have to object to most of the things you say in this post.
There’s something that’s been nagging at me ever since I read this article . . . I’m not sure I can properly articulate it, but it seems to me that when a publisher decides to pay $X million for the rights to a book, plus $XXX to market it, to ensure that it’s everywhere—in stores, on the radio, in your TV—when it comes out, to basically ensure that this book has penetrated mass culture, that publisher is impacting the world in ways that go beyond simple dollars and cents, and should take that responsibility seriously. Books are not toothpaste. What is read, discussed, and thought about by thousands of people is more meaningful than “shifting product.” Yes, publishers need to stay in business, and it is a business, but in my opinion, it’s a special sort of business.
1 – You’re presenting commercial success and quality as mutually exclusive (which they aren’t); assuming that publishers can either line their greedy pockets or produce “culture.” Believe me, most people in this business are here for the love of books, not the money.
Yeah, I know. I do that a lot. And it’s true—not all best-sellers are crap, and not all books that sell like crap are works of genius. Personally, I’m not a fan of Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, or Glenn Beck’s (!!! Oh dear God, everyone should check out this video) The Christmas Sweater (the top three current NY Times bestsellers), and wouldn’t consider these “literary” books, but someone might. (Not sure who, but still.)
2 – You refer to books with big advances as undeserving. Undeserving? I’m not going to argue the literary merit of Dewey, but that book more than made back its advance and is one of the reasons Hachette is the only publisher that seems to be doing well right now. Advances are calculated based on expected sales. So, big sales=big advances. That’s good business. Advances aren’t some grade publishers are giving out for effort.
Although in the WSJ article, Elberse points out that big advances=big marketing budgets, which generally=big sales. So it’s more complicated than this. The expectations are premised upon what a publisher thinks it can do with a book, not just what a book will sell if you throw it out there to let the readers decide.
3 – You hold up Penguin Classics as a purveyor of culture. Penguin Classics publishes classics because they are public domain and therefore free. The only cost is production. If that was not the case, Bronte and Melville wouldn’t be readily available. Never mind the fact that “classics” are classics because everyone says they are—they have proven track records and are guaranteed sellers as long as there’s an expectation that a well-read person will have read these books. Don’t kid yourself that books are classics based strictly on merit—it has as much to do with tradition and historical perspective as what’s between the covers. And do you honestly believe these books didn’t face market pressures in their own time?
I probably didn’t explain this well—and won’t now—but I had in mind the idea that these books have sold more over the long terms than a lot of best-selling books do over the short term. There’s something to be said for sticking with a book until it finds its audience in contrast to a quick hit.
4 – It’s all well and good to complain about the attention paid to bestsellers, but bestsellers are called that because they sell. And just throwing money and publicity at a book is not enough to make it one (I give you The Interpretation of Murder), so it’s not like publishers are being arbiters of culture, choosing to focus on these books because they think they are more worthy. I can point to the shelves and shelves of amazing books my company has published that have sold less than 3,000 copies, most of which were bought by an editor who believed in the books merit in spite of its lack of commercial potential. And publishing these books is doing no good for either the publishers or the authors. So publishers try to focus their resources on the books they think they will sell. That’s it. You expect people whose livelihoods depend on sales of these books to make bad business choices? We often do, which is a lot of the problem. But if you want art for art’s sake, there are plenty of charities for that.
There are? Will they fund Open Letter? I feel like this is shifting a bit . . . Bestsellers are one thing, the “blockbuster model” that I was writing about is another.
5 – Why are you complaining about bestsellers squeezing out other books? Do you have any idea how many books are published every year?
Even in this recession, my company is publishing more books next year than it ever has before. We are in no danger of seeing the number of new books each year drop below the tens of thousands. Those books are out there right now. If you don’t want to read Dewey, it’s not like there aren’t other options.
Again, that’s not really what I was talking about. Of course there are thousands of books out there to read—hundred(s) of which we discuss here on this website. And there are hundreds of others we’d love to have the time/energy to write about. That still doesn’t mean that the reliance on big advance blockbusters isn’t a bit off kilter.
So it seems that the problem as you present it is not that there aren’t plenty of books, which believe me, there are, but that the media and the booksellers pay attention to ones you think are unworthy. And I’m sorry for that, but people will always being reading things you might disapprove of, and if we want to survive as an industry, we have to sell books to those people.
I have no problem selling books to readers. Or, to put it more accurately, selling heap loads of books to boat loads of readers. (Like the hundreds of thousands of people we hope are anxiously awaiting Jan Kjaerstad’s The Conqueror.) This conversation has drifted away from the discussion of the “blockbuster model,” which involves a huge investment based on (in my opinion) flimsy principles, in hopes of having to sell an astronomical number of copies in order to stay in business and remain profitable, to more about bestsellers. I don’t begrudge commercial publishers selling lots of copies of books (big houses do some really great books, and as a business it’s their prerogative to make as much money as possible), I just think there are might be saner business models for publishers that might be even more stable and successful, and could lead to a more interesting, diverse book culture that engages lots of different groups of readers, even if there are only 3,000 people interested in a particular title.
One of the biggest problems facing publishing right now is that is filled with people who are making decisions based on love of books, not on business. I should just point to the number of layoffs happening in book publishing right now as proof that we have not been focusing on the bottom line nearly enough. We are businesses; to survive we have to start acting like businesses. To expect us to act like patrons of the arts is ludicrous.
Exactly. And maybe these layoffs are happening because the business model publishers are relying upon needs to be tweaked a bit. One thing that inevitably gets left out of conversations/articles like this is that there are presses that are essentially patrons of the arts and that this nonprofit model (or university press model, or hybrid of the two, or whatever) is equally valid to the commercial “blockbuster” model. These presses serve a slightly different audience, and are guided by different goals and missions. They might publish books that people who read (or watch, or listen to) Glenn Beck might not “get,” but that doesn’t mean that these books aren’t appreciated, enjoyed, treasured, etc. These presses also face a different set of problems: undercapitalized due to the paucity of funding options in our country for literature, have a more difficult time getting their books into stores, don’t receive as much media coverage for their titles, etc. It’s not a perfect model, but it does exists, and has worked really well for a good number of presses that function to benefit culture and don’t gamble on paying big bucks for potentially big books.
I’ve been internally fuming ever since I read this Blockbuster or Bust article in the Wall Street Journal by business school professor Anita Elberse. Elberse is most famous for her take-down in the Harvard Business Journal of the long tail theory. Now she’s back, ready to defend the “blockbuster model” employed by publishers (and movie execs, music moguls, etc.).
The “blockbuster model” is exactly what it sounds like: publishers pay millions in advances for high-profile books ($2.5 mill to Sarah Silverman, $1.25 mill for fricking Dewey, the list goes on) in hopes of finding a “mega-hit” that makes up for the mediocre sales of the rest of its list. Or, in business-speak:
Most large media firms make outsized investments to acquire and market a small number of titles with strong hit potential, and bank on their sales to make up for middling performance in the rest of their catalogs.
OK, yes, that’s a model. A dominant one in fact. One that—to many—seems a bit rocky, especially when you consider how publishers decide which titles to throw their checkbooks at:
Rather than putting all its eggs in one basket, wouldn’t it be smarter for a publisher to place a larger number of smaller bets — particularly in today’s harsh economic climate?
Hardly. Despite its double-or-nothing daring, the blockbuster strategy remains the most sensible approach to lasting success.
Consider, first, how these bets come about. Given the variability in execution in books, and the constantly shifting tastes of consumers, it is extremely difficult to forecast demand for a new title. The one useful indicator of commercial potential is its resemblance to an existing bestseller, so a project can be tagged, say, “the next Tipping Point“ or “a hipper Harry Potter.” This similarity is an indicator that’s evident to any editor or publisher who sees the proposal — and thanks to busy agents, many do. As a consequence, there is heavy convergence of interest on certain properties, triggering competitive bidding situations.
“It’s like Marley & Me meets The Bridges of Madison County.” Hold on while I gag. . . . Yes, this sort of “this book is like best-seller exhibit A, so it will be a best-seller as well” powers a lot of editorial decisions. But is this really a good thing?
(This article absolutely drives me crazy. It’s like my economics classes—I completely agree on the description of the situation and how it works, but when it comes to value judgments on whether this situation is “good” or not, I feel diametrically opposed to what business people stand for.)
It’s clear that Elberse is valuing is the business of business, the business of profit making, over the cultural contributions publishers can, and do, make. Spend big bucks, put a lot of weight behind the book, make a ton of money, move onto next mega-hit. (cringing)
At least she sort of recognizes part of the potential downfall of this model:
When a publisher spends an inordinate amount on an acquisition, it will do everything in its power to make that project a market success. Most importantly, this means supporting the book with higher-than-average marketing, advertising and distribution support — which is exactly how Grand Central handled Dewey‘s launch. To do otherwise would be foolish: If a product like Dewey fails to draw readers, Grand Central knows its profitability will be severely hurt. With such high stakes and money tied up in a few big projects in the pipeline, the need to score big with a next project becomes more pressing, and the process repeats itself. The result is a spiral of ever-increasing bets on the most promising concepts, creating a “blockbuster trap.”
So, in this trap, publishers keep spending more money to get bigger books with bigger potential returns, causing them to spend even more money on even bigger books. . . . I hear that sort of idea worked out really well for the banking industry, so why not? Besides, you can’t break out of the cycle, right?
But what would happen if a publisher like Grand Central decided to stop making large bids like the one it placed on “Dewey” and systematically walked away from the most sought-after — and therefore expensive — new properties?
First, agents would stop sending such a publisher their most
promising book proposals. “If you are constantly backing out of big-ticket auctions, your list is going to hurt,” is how one publishing executive explains it. “You are going to get a stigma that you don’t play for the big ones, and you are going to get shunned out. Agents will no longer consider you for what they feel are their best projects.” Publishers can’t afford to cost-save themselves out of the market. Even if they could develop extraordinary competence in finding gold in the “slush pile” of hundreds of pieces of unsolicited material received each week, the dividends would be limited. After one success, the talent the publisher had nurtured would discover the value of an agent.
Uggghh . . . But wait, there’s more:
Book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble want to see evidence that a book is worthy of their scarce resources. They like nothing better than to know that a book publisher has made a significant push for a title and is planning an extensive marketing campaign. In most media markets, support from the biggest retailers is decisive. A significant share of books is bought on impulse, so significant shelf space and room on display tables (“pile ‘em high and watch ‘em fly” tactics) are particularly important. A blockbuster strategy helps retailers to use their resources effectively, too.
Yeah, no, that’s great. Who really gives a shit about quality, about culture, about the benefits of reading? In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons our industry is in trouble, and one of the causes for the so-called “decline in reading.” The primary examples used in this article—Dewey, Nicholas Sparks—are not good books/writers. But crappy books like this are force fed through the system because of this “all-or-nothing” sort of model. Reputation and “marketability” lead to undeserved astronomical advances, causing publishers to promote these books at the expense of real literature, leading impersonal box stores to assault the eyes and sensibilities of readers.
Again, in my opinion, this sort of short-term payoff mentality that runs throughout this sort of publishing—and business schools—damages culture. Maybe it’s fine for cookbook publishing or whatever, but in terms of literature, I truly believe that we have to take a more rational, tempered, long-term approach. Look at the Penguin Classics list. Included are tons of the greatest authors of all time and works that have survived. That have added something to our culture as a whole, that weren’t published just to try and make back the $1 million advance.
I had some hope that the financial collapse would bring everyone back to earth and back to the idea that you can “make enough money” instead of always trying to drive up profit margins in an industry that has never been particularly profitable.
Unfortunately, if this “blockbuster” mentality continues to be “the most sensible approach to lasting success” we’re in a lot of trouble. Thank god for university presses and nonprofits. And I want to personally thank Ms. Elberse for giving me something to get all fired up about, and for clearly laying out (in an negative image sort of way) all the reasons why people need to support nonprofit presses (and independents) in order for real literary culture to survive.
Yesterday, I wrote a bit about the cost of imported books in Argentina and the impact this has on access. (In case you’re interested, Scott Esposito wrote an interesting piece a while back about the cost of books.)
Oddly enough, it seems like Australia has a related, yet different sort of problem—publishers there are lobbying to keep a ban on importing cheap editions of books:
The Council of Australian Governments decided last week to ask the Productivity Commission to review copyright laws restricting the parallel importation of books.
These laws give the Australian copyright owner control over who is allowed to import books subject to the 30-day rule. Under this rule, local publishers must supply a book within 30 days of its publication overseas, otherwise booksellers can import directly from the foreign publisher. (via The Australian)
Behind this restriction seems to lie a much bigger problem of distribution. Something’s wrong when it could take more than 30 days to supply a copy of a published book. (I’ve been thinking a lot about distribution recently—it’s a side-effect of doing sales calls—and was planning to write a long post about this today . . . )
This actually came out in last week’s Time Out New York, but Michael Miller’s piece on how a book goes from writer to reader is pretty interesting and touches on some of the knotty issues surrounding publication and publicity.
Miller briefly hits on the various gate keepers of book culture: agents, editors, critics.
It really is insane to think about all that goes into making a single book “take off.” Especially when you consider that over 250,000 books are published a year—over 12,000 of which are works of fiction and poetry. Throw in there that the average American (according to the NEA) reads about 4 books a year and it seems almost impossible that any book (especially a work of literary fiction) rises above the fray. (Conversely, the idea that 250,000 books are published seems equally crazy. It’s as if any off-the-wall proposal can find a publisher out there.)
It would take tomes to fully explore and explain this issue, but Miller gets some good quotes/viewpoints into his piece, especially from Lorin Stein and Ira Silverberg:
Ira Silverberg, an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic who represents Sam Lipsyte, Christopher Sorrentino and Rene Steinke, puts it another way: “We are the first line of defense—we keep it safe to read in America, because most of the stuff that people write is shit.”
We generally don’t work with many agents for Open Letter titles. (Of our first 14 acquisitions, 5 were agented.) Most of the time we work with foreign publishers or the author him/herself. The fact that the book was published elsewhere takes the place of the vetting process that agents serve for American writers. (Still, there’s a lot of dreck out there . . .)
Questing for great books to publish is frequently considered the “fun part” of publishing (for Christ’s sake, I get to go to Buenos Aires in a couple weeks to meet editors and authors and to immerse myself in the culture of Argentina . . . Does it get any better than that?) The part of this process that most fascinates me is actually the end result—finding a way to get people to pick up a particular book and spend their cash and time to read it.
Once a book is printed, it reaches a new and complex series of gatekeepers—namely the media, blogs, bookstores and readers themselves. Most publicists confer that no one thing can make an author a household name. Almost everyone agrees that a long interview on NPR’s Fresh Air can be a huge boost (one industry insider said that “Terry Gross blows [New York Times reviewer] Michiko Kakutani out of the water”), but that selling books requires a tricky mix of review attention, bookseller enthusiasm and word-of-mouth praise.
That uncertainty is what I find incredibly enjoyable about publishing. That and seeing someone reading a book you acquired/published on the subway . . .
We mentioned this a couple weeks back, but this morning, the Literary Saloon has a more factual follow-up to Douglas Kibbee’s claim that translations are on the rise, as evidenced by the increase in coverage for translations in the New York Times Book Review.
Michael Orthofer—who both questioned the veracity of this statement and the idea that a review of a translation a week was a success—compiled some stats on the last three issues:
Of the 62 books reviewed in all a mere two — Ogawa Yoko’s The Diving Pool and Michael Krüger’s The Executor — were originally written in a foreign language (and they only received the ‘books-in-brief’-treatment).
I have a complicated relationship to all of this, in part because I feel that Kibbee’s kind of right—things are getting better for translations, he just chose an odd way of “proving” it—and that it’s not necessarily the mandate/responsibility of the NYTBR to cover a certain number of literary translations. True, it’s unfortunate that so few foreign voices make their way into the Book Review, and as a publisher who is always scrapping for any review coverage we can get, I wish the Times reviewed only literary translations, but I don’t feel like the Times is unilaterally hostile towards all books in translations.
(I’m sure many bloggers will disagree with me about this, but I really believe that what gets reviewed is tied up in a more complicated dynamic including who the publishers are, what’s hot, how publishers publicize, etc., etc. It’s just not as simple as translation vs. English . . . It may fall more into the realm of large publisher—with all the clout and organizational resources associated with that—versus small—and often disorganized or too busy to focus—and since large publishers have the means to really promote their books, and since so few are works in translation, these statistics turn out the way they do. I’d be interested in seeing what the percentages are for coverage of translated books from commercial presses versus translated books from indie presses. I suspect that a healthy percentage of books reviewed in the NYTBR from independent presses are literature in translation—but that the number of reviews of books from independent, or university, presses is rather modest. In shorthand, it’s complicated . . . )
One thing that came up at the Translation Conference panel was the relative lack of translator-reviewers. At a panel that took place a few weeks ago, representatives from the New York Times and The New Republic commented on how it can be difficult to find a good reviewer familiar enough with the context and tradition surrounding a particular work of international literature to be capable of writing a really thoughtful, interesting review.
That may be a bit of a cop-out, but it is absolutely true that there are far more American writers reviewing these days than there are translators . . . Not sure in the end if this would make a difference, but if there were a couple dozen very active translator-reviewers out there pitching books, capable of writing about a work from Brazil without relying solely on the English version and flap-copy bio of the author, maybe there would be an overall increase in the amount of general coverage of translations. . . .
The most recent issue of Publishers Weekly contains an interesting piece on the state and nature of independent publishing in the UK:
“Independents,” for these purposes, are U.K. trade publishers that are not one of the Big Four (Hachette, Random House, HarperCollins and Penguin) or the Not-Quite-So-Big Three (Pan Macmillan, Bloomsbury and Simon & Schuster). As in the U.S., there are plenty of them around. The U.K.‘s Independent Publishers Guild has around 460 publishing members with a combined turnover of £500 million, and they are gradually increasing, not shrinking, in number as technology lowers the cost of entry. But the premium layer is visible and influential in a way that most U.S. independents are not. [. . .]
Their size, however, does give them one more pertinent common feature, neatly summed up by a publisher who has operated at both ends of the scale. “The bigger you are, the more you’re affected by the market,” says Tim Hely Hutchinson, CEO of U.K. market leader Hachette Livre U.K. “If you’re small, you make your own success.”
Most of this article focuses on the “entrepreneurial attitude” of indie presses—the way they find new ways to be successful, even in the face of market obstacles, such as display space:
These three-for-twos and other promotions paid for by the publishers—mostly the big ones—now fill the front of the major bookstores. This forces independents to rethink how they publish, maintains Anthony Cheetham, chairman of fast-growing Quercus Publishing. “The entire front of the store, the face-out space, is sold to the books that have the largest mass market potential,” he says. That effectively means sold to the six largest publishers, who have 90% of the weekly top 50 bestseller list. “The midlist—good books on history, science, philosophy, books by good, new literary writers—is squeezed out. The front of the store can’t respond to market forces if something from the back takes off, because the space is sold. So the big chains have their hands around the neck of the trade, and independents must look elsewhere.”
There’s also a bit of info about the Independent Alliance, which is an intriguing set-up:
The most visible face of independent publishing is the Independent Alliance (sometimes known as the Faber Alliance), created in 2005 in response to the darkening retail climate. [. . .] The idea was to present a united front to retailers by sharing Faber’s sales and administrative muscle with a number of smaller but distinctive publishers. They learn from each other’s best ideas and have begun hosting alliance conferences on topical issues, mostly recently on the digital world.
What comes through loud-and-clear (and is even referenced in the title of the article) is the devotion of indie publishers to every book they publish. There’s a stronger sense of ownership, of taking responsibility for making a book a success, which really appeals to me. There are some indie presses—like Arcadia—that probably should’ve been included in this article, but on the whole it’s a decent overview of the situation and how these presses function.
Although hopefully one day the statement from the opening paragraph—“But the premium layer [of independent presses] is visible and influential in a way that most U.S. independents are not”—will be grossly inaccurate.
Not necessarily international lit related, but this is pretty big news (from Shelf Awareness:
Borders is putting itself up for sale or may sell divisions. It has suspended its dividend. It is borrowing some $42.5 million from the hedge fund that is its largest shareholder. [. . .]
[CEO George] Jones added that Borders believes that its 2009 financial targets “remain attainable, yet within the current economic environment, we will be slowed in our progress and expect that we’ll reach them later than originally planned. Still, we believe our strategic plan remains the right path toward achieving these goals.” This plan includes the imminent launching of the company’s website on its own, the spread of “new concept” stores that emphasize digital offerings, the display of more titles face out and a related reduction in inventory of 5%-10%, among other initiatives.
Anything involving a “reduction in inventory” makes me shudder, especially since I can make an educated guess as to what type of books will fall into that 5-10% . . . Depending on how this plays out, Borders could look entirely different in five years, as could the retail industry for books as a whole.
Not sure how we missed this article by Jane Henderson in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about how “world literature thrives in translation” (especially considering that Three Percent is listed in the “more information” box), but I have to agree with Michael Orthofer —“thriving” is probably a bad word choice, especially when this is the evidence cited:
“I think it’s picking up,” said Douglas Kibbee, director of the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a new Center for Translation Studies. “If you look at what’s reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, more translations are showing up. Now it’s rare to go a single issue without having a translated work in it.”
Even if the NY Times is covering a translation a week in the Sunday Book Review, that’s only 50 books a year . . . throw in a few extras for good measure, and at best they’re reviewing 70 title (this figure is probably way overstated). Which is fine—it could be a lot lower, and besides it’s their prerogative to review whatever they want—but I’d hardly reference that as proof that translation is thriving . . .
This is one of the problems with the U.S. publishing world—with a lack of statistical data about such issues, anyone can pass off “gut feelings” as fact. (Hell, I’ve done it myself—oftentimes that’s all you have to go on.) And like Orthofer said, the bar is so low that any slight increase is cause for celebration.
There really may be reason for optimism though . . . Translation isn’t really “thriving” per se, but over the past few years a number of things have developed—from PEN World Voices to Words Without Borders to a few new translation centers at various universities to the biennial Translation Conference going on later this month—that have helped to bring more attention and awareness to the issues and pleasures of world literature.
Nevertheless, when there are only approx. 400 original translations of adult fiction and poetry are published here on an annual basis, the majority of which get little to no review coverage, I think we have a long way to go . . . At least more people are talking about translations and looking for ways to improve the situation.
We announced the first Titlepage.tv episode yesterday and then watched about 15 minutes before leaving it paused on a goofy Charles Bock grimace for the rest of the day.
That’s approximately 10 minutes, 33 seconds more than Jessa from Bookslut watched.
And Sarah Weinman has a list of ten ways to improve the show, including:
To my dying day I’m going to hold out hope that there could be a fun, engaging, intellectually stimulating, TV show about books. This may not be it, although here’s to hoping that Titlepage learns from its mistakes and blossoms over the next few episodes.
Here’s my prediction though: Lots of people will watch this and think—hell, it’s not that hard to put together an internet show that’s at least this good. A bunch of different programs will suddenly come into existence, a few of which are actually quite good. Around the time that we find out that one of these new ones is 10 times more popular than Titlepage there will be a big media backlash against these “amateur” programmers, dismissing internet programs as “not the real thing.” A divisive spat will ensue mimicing the whole bloggers vs. print thing, and readers will be back where they started with nothing worth watching.
Penguin’s audio plans circa October 22, 2007 (via PW):
In other Penguin news, the New York Times reported today that the publisher has pulled out of its deal with eMusic to sell its audio titles through the online music retailer. Penguin Audio publisher Dick Heffernan told the paper that the issue came down to fears about piracy, since eMusic, unlike rival iTunes, sells its titles without the DRM software that prevents files from being copied.
Penguin is planning to offer audiobooks that are free of digital copyright protection technology, which will allow buyers to play them on any digital device, dismissing fears that they could become the latest target for online pirates.
And you think I’m kidding or being snarky re: the Random House comment, right?
Announcing a strong set of annual results from Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times, chief executive Marjorie Scardino said yesterday that Penguin would follow Random House and experiment with selling “DRM-free” digital versions of its audiobooks on the internet.
Critical Mass has a list of “ten commandments” for publishers from indie publisher and author Michael Kruger:
1. Publish only the books you really love.
2. Publish only the books you love to read yourself.
3. Never publish more books than you can read.
4. Never publish a book that bores you, even if you think that you can sell it.
5. Only publish books that make you wonder.
6. Do not publish only fiction
7. Never think that books make people better.
8. Always be happy that you do not have to publish the books of your competitors.
9. Always be aware that too much reading is bad for your eyes and bad for your back.
10. Publishers who are only interested in books, are dangerous.
I second all of these. And totally agree with this comment from Dick Margulis: “Publishers who are only interested in books are much less dangerous than publishers who are only interested in satisfying their stockholders.”
This is just awful:
In Los Angeles, one of that city’s landmark independents, Dutton’s Brentwood Books, will close on April 30. The news comes a little more than one year after Dutton’s closed its Beverly Hills store. Owner Doug Dutton said that he had been trying to save the Brentwood location for months, but had been unable to find a way to keep the business afloat. He added that any chance to reopen at a new location would depend on a real offer. Dutton’s was founded by Dutton’s parents in 1961. (via Publishers Weekly)
This, on the other hand, is quite interesting:
An Ann Arbor literary institution, Shaman Drum does not have a clear successor to owner Pohrt. He thought about selling the store – but instead, he’s decided to give it away.
For the past several months, Pohrt and Bob Hart of Shaman Drum have been working on a plan to transform the 27-year-old bookselling business into a nonprofit enterprise. The change could happen later this year.
“I like to think in terms of metaphors, that this is a vehicle, and you are stepping from one vehicle into another,” said Pohrt, who is being honored for his contributions to the literary community during a conference March 6-7 at the University of Michigan.
“I don’t think the book business in this country, as a business model, has worked for anybody.” (via MLive)
A couple weeks ago we linked to Lawrence Venuti’s article on Words Without Borders about the business of publishing translations. It’s a very interesting piece that was written for a panel on the To Be Translated or Not To Be report and puts forth a somewhat provocative stance on what should be published in translation:
I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture.
Over the weekend, WWB posted an interview between Alane Mason and Venuti that explores some of these issues in depth.
The entire conversation is pretty fascinating and quotable, but this is the section that most stood out to me:
I expect PUBLISHERS, with the help of translators, to be making the publishing decisions, yet those decisions need to be made in a much more informed way than personal taste, even if that can’t be eliminated in any literary judgment. Or why not look at the problem as a matter of a publisher developing his or her taste by learning as much as possible about foreign literary traditions before choosing a foreign work for translation? The ignorance of foreign languages among US publishers is now legendary, but what about their knowledge of foreign cultures (a knowledge that cannot really be separated from language)? If a publisher can find one novel to like in a foreign literature, why not think that same publisher can find another one or three written by different writers at different times? Publishers are currently at the mercy of a selection process that in many cases may well be based on a severely limited or superficial knowledge of foreign cultures. Translations demand that a publisher know more, and translators can help, but they too need to know more about the foreign literatures from which they translate, and that more needs to be figured into their translating.
I pretty much agree with Venuti’s sentiment, although I may be biased by the fact that I have a touch of the OCD and love to research and read about different literary cultures.
One of the most useful activities I’ve engaged in—that plays into Venuti’s general idea—is going on editorial trips to various countries to learn at least a bit about a particular culture and its literary history and to network with international editors, critics, translators, and readers who can help me make informed decisions. Before going to Reykjavik and Barcelona, I knew next to nothing about Icelandic or Catalan literature. But the days spent listening to critics give me a rundown on the literary history of their county, of compiling lists of modern and contemporary authors, of meeting translators, editors, professors and the like who are all willing to share information about literary works and how these works were received was extremely, extremely valuable. (And to be honest, it doesn’t hurt that these two cities are two of the most beautiful on earth.)
I don’t claim to be an expert in either Icelandic or Catalan literature, but after reading tons and tons of information, and talking with various contacts made during these trips, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of where the Icelandic (Bragi Olafsson) and Catalan (Merce Rodoreda and Quim Monzo) authors fit into their respective traditions, and that we’ve made pretty good choices.
On a practical side, this is just the beginning, and we need to continue to do more works from both countries, and to connect with other publishers (if there are any) doing books from these regions to help create a more well-rounded representation of Icelandic and Catalan literature. But at least we’ve taken some initial steps, both in terms of forethought and research, and making some works from these cultures available to English readers.
Anyway, these sorts of trips (we’re going to both Buenos Aires and Olso this spring on similar editorial research trips), are extremely valuable for anyone engaged in the business of publishing translations, and one example of how some of what Venuti’s calling for is actually taking place.
I can see why some people would criticize Venuti’s argument, or have a knee-jerk reaction against it. It may be both a bit utopic and a bit ivory-tower-ish all at once. On the whole though, I think that his end goal is very much in keeping with what the more admirable presses out there (by admirable, I mean ones with a mission other than to make as much money as possible) that are working together to create an audience for international literature. I only wish he left more space for readerly emotion and had more info on projects that are already going on that actually support his general theory.
In my opinion, making self-conscious, properly weighed decisions is important, but an editor’s passion about a project is equally important. I don’t think he intends it this way, but Venuti makes the acquisition project seem like a dry, boring process, when really, reading and falling in love with a particular book, culture, etc., is exciting and fun, and there’s something to be said for going ahead with a project that an editor is passionate about.
More importantly, there are a lot of publishers, cultural organizations, and translators currently doing things that relate to Venuti’s general premise—activities that deserve to be highlighted. In addition to editorial trips, there are programs like Reading the World, the intent of which is to offer a broader context for literature in translation, and there are a number of top-notch translation preses (like NYRB and New Directions and Archipelago and the like) who do collaborate instead of compete, and work together in trying to promote different literary cultures.
Both of these essays by Venuti are very thought provoking and help advance certain questions and ideas that the publishing industry (at least those devote to international literature) should be considering, debating, and discussing. These pieces are just the beginning though . . . in addition to looking at the responsibility of publishers in their editorial choices, there are issues related to marketing and promotions, how the bookstore marketplace works, etc., all of which feed into creating the appropriate context for reading, appreciating, and coming to understand works in translation.
He wrote this essay for the Frankfurt Book Fair panel on To Be Translated or Not To Be (warning, that links to the entire report in pdf form), a fascinating study done by Esther Allen, the Ramon Llull Institute and PEN centers around the world. (I’m actually reviewing this for a scholarly publication, and am planning on spending all next week posting about the different sections.)
Back to Venuti’s essay: His thoughts tie in really well to the economic analysis that we wrote about yesterday.
Early in the twentieth century, a largely unwritten policy came to prevail among Anglophone publishers. Buy the translation rights to a single book by a foreign author. If soon after publication the translation suffers a substantial loss or fails to earn back its production costs or to realize a modest profit, then stop publishing translations of the author’s books. If, however, the first translation manages to break even or to approach a break-even point, then continue to publish translations of that particular author in the hope that more translations will create a readership and add profitable titles to the backlist. [. . .]
Sales in the range of 5,000 copies became a benchmark for a successful translation of a foreign novel. Yet the figure also came to reflect the sad reality of publishing translations in English. In 2002 Christopher MacLehose, formerly director of the Harvill Press, observed that “for the most part now the majority of even the finest books that are translated find their way to sales between 1,500 and 6,000.”
Over the past hundred years few English-language translations have managed to reach that upper limit. As a result, most foreign authors who have had a book translated into English have not been translated again, either by the initial publisher or by others, who were scared off by the poor market performance of the first translation.
All of this is spot-on true, and fairly well documented. The bigger issue is how to get more translations published, and more people reading them. Venuti’s promotes a more holistic, multi-pronged approach designed to create a better context for readers to approach “strange” or “difficult” books from other countries.
I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture. Translators too need to participate in these choices, since their expertise is invaluable in assessing the losses and gains in the translation process. But they must regard translation in more self-critical ways than is generally the rule today, when translators tend to take a belletristic approach to their work, making impressionistic comments which show that they, like publishers, find writing to be primarily personal, a form of self-expression or a testimony of their aesthetic kinship to the foreign author. Publishers and translators alike need to depersonalize translation and to become aware of the ethical responsibility involved in representing foreign texts and cultures. What a sad time it is for intercultural exchange when publishers and translators look abroad and see mainly opportunities to imprint their own values.
The initiative I am recommending cannot be pursued by one publisher alone without a significant outlay of capital and probably not without the funding and advice of a cultural ministry or institute in a foreign country. But publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success.
For the most part, I second this. Publishers, readers, reviewers, bloggers, literary people in general, can work together to create a better context for receiving a particular book. All true. I’m not sure I quite agree with this “critical detachment” on the publisher’s part. It almost seems like he’s suggesting that publishers should be doing certain books because someone (who exactly?) has decided that these texts are representative of foreign cultures.
That’s all fine and good—but not necessarily the function of a publishing house. Then again, it depends on what house you’re looking at. In terms of a commercial house seeking out chick-lit books from Iran, because “these are the books that sell,” I agree with Venuti. This does very little cultural good, and in fact, may well be harmful to a greater understanding of other cultures.
If Archipelago decides to publish a Basque book though (like they are), I know it’s because Jill Schoolman loves that particular title and wants to get it in the hands of everyone she knows. Granted, it would be awesome if there were critical apparatus to create a better context for approaching this book, however, it’s not her moral imperative to do other titles that more fully sketch out the situation of the Basque in Spain.
That said, more collaboration would benefit everyone. Not sure of the specific form this takes, but linking up Graywolf’s forthcoming Bernardo Atxaga books with Archipelago’s Unai Elorriaga title starts building this context. Who does this though? And how? Seems to me that these are critical questions to the on-going development of a book culture that respects and appreciates world literature.
Esther Allen—director of the Center for Literary Translation, amazing translator, and committee member for Open Letter—recently passed along a fascinating article entitled The Impact of English Dominance on Literature and Welfare by Jacques Melitz, and published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization back in late 2007.
There are many interesting things about this article, starting with the fact that an economist decided to investigate and write about the difficulty of getting books translated into English.
Before getting too far into this, I have to admit that although I did pretty well in my recent Economics class, it’s the only graduate Econ class I’ve ever had, so please keep that in mind if you read my attempt below to summarize this article (which is available in its entirety via the link above).
This article starts off with a noble argument:
Quite precisely, my argument will be that the tendency of an integrated world market to privilege the translation of English fiction and poetry into other languages for reading or listening enjoyment may damage the production of world literature and in this respect make us all worse off.
Right on. And something we all tacitly understand—English is the dominant world language (for now), therefore it’s easier to get books translated from English into “smaller” languages than it is to go from the “small” language to English. What’s interesting about this particular article is the reasoning and explanations Melitz presents as to why this works out.
(Again, disclaimer re: my real econ knowledge—read section 3 to get a better description.) Repeating my mantra of last month, Melitz starts from the premise that all publishers function under the “profit-maximizing condition” of setting marginal cost (the amount it costs to make the next unit) equal to marginal revenue (the amount of revenue you can gain by selling the next unit). This is a basic economic principle setting forth the conditions for maximizing a firm’s profit.
As we all know, it costs more to publish a book in translation. In his mathematical model, Melitz uses F to equal the “flat payment to the author for his time” (I’m reading this as the lowest possible advance given to a book making its way into publication) and “in-house expenses of selecting and editing a manuscript.” For translations, he replaces F with Ctr + C*, which is equal to the cost of translating a work plus the cost of selecting and editing a book in translation.
What this boils down to is that if Ctr + C* > F for the lowest selling book published by a firm, than the house will not publish that book in translation. (Still, no real surprises, just new language, which fits my working theory of the real value of business school—new definitions.)
Applying this model, books that get published in translation (either in English or another language), are titles that will have projected sales that are equal to, or greater than, the lowest projected sales for a work written in English. So only the most popular, best-selling books get translated from other languages into English:
As one student of the publishing industry observes: “Not surprisingly, what people most want to read [in translation] are other people’s best-selling literature” (Curwen, The World Book Industry)
All of this is logical—if not a bit depressing and maybe a bit off, especially when you get to real data and realize that indie presses are publishing 10 times the works in translation that the big commercial houses are, and that these books frequently were not best-sellers in their original language, but well, that’s why we started the 2008 translation database and why relying on stats from UNESCO only get you so far—but, here’s where things get a little weird in his argument.
By applying such an industrial, economic model to publishing (which, for those in the know, is for the most part, not all that economically sound) one of the conclusions reached is that more books will be translated from English into other languages because a) these best-sellers have succeeded against greater odds, and b) that it’s cheaper (in terms of C*) to translate 10 books from 1 language than 10 books from 10 different languages.
The second point is true in terms of fixed costs—just think of the number of editors necessary—and indicates why during certain periods a ton of French or German books might be translated into English. (Oh, and French and Germans write good books, but whatever, I’m in business explanation mode now.)
The first is the one that leads to odd conclusions, namely, that it’s much harder to get published in English (for any writers, including native ones) than in another language just because of the sheer competition. This is reached via the assumption that the means of production are the same everywhere and that there’s an equal ration of speakers of a given language to number of books published in that language in any country in the world. (E.g., if there are 10,000 speakers of language X, then 1,000 books will be published, just as 5,000 speakers of language Y results in 500 books.)
Regardless, his final conclusion is something most people involved in translations can agree with:
I have argued that the dominance of English threatens the accumulation of capital in the form of literature. Since publishers need to offset the costs of translation, they tend to confine translations to works that have sold especially well in the original language and thereby to limit their costs of selection. Because of some economies of scale and the signaling value of success in a huge market, the dominant language will capture a disproportionate share of translations. Very significantly too, according to the market analysis, advances in the technology of diffusion increase the advantage of the dominant language in the field of translations.
OK, so the “accumulation of capital” thing is a bit confusing to me, but the basic sentiment that, left to its own economic devises, the publishing industry will trend towards a model where English books are translated everywhere and very little gets translated into English, and that this is unfortunate and damaging to world culture, is something I agree with.
Beyond all the points in this article and details I’m glossing over, it’s interesting that this even exists. Sure, he didn’t really talk to publishers or create a very complicated model of the publishing scheme, but it’s cool that someone out there is thinking about this and identifying reasons for the problem that most of us “literary” folks don’t necessarily think about. At least not in a global, world market sort of way.
Here are two wonderful, oh so inspiring quotes about reading that are perfect for a Monday morning. The first is from Steve Jobs and actually came out a couple weeks ago. In reference to Amazon’s Kindle:
“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”
All Jobs has to say is something like, “I don’t think we’re going to make an iReader, but books are cool,” and the lemming-effect would set in and millions of i-hipsters would rush out to bookstores across the country . . . instead, it’s door-locking, fetal position time . . .
And then, in today’s Shelf Awareness there’s this depressing news and quote:
Sadly the Reading Room in Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas’s only general independent bookstore selling new books, is closing by the end of March. According to Las Vegas City Life, the casino owners are betting that a different kind of retail operation in the space will appeal more to the casino’s somewhat younger visitors. As City Life put it, “when that younger, hipper tourist hits a mall on the Strip, he’s more likely looking for designer jeans than the collected works of Jean Genet.”
What really bugs me about both of these quotes is the implicit belief that it’s perfectly OK to bash literature and reading. Tell someone that theatre is a dead art. Or that we should close down the symphony orchestra because it’s not hip. That art museums are only for old people. I’m sure people would be up in arms about any one of these statements. But when it comes to literature/reading, it seems like book culture just passively stands there taking the abuse. Well, of course no one reads Genet these days . . .
Screw it. No more Mac products for our office until Jobs recants this ridiculous remark. And screw Las Vegas. BEA should pull out and go somewhere literary in 2010. At least someplace with a frickin’ bookstore.
In the face of appeals and threats of legal action, Arts Council England has this morning confirmed it is to cut funding from the independent publisher Dedalus Books and the east London literature centre, Centerprise.
As Eric Lane said in this interview, losing this grant will severely impact Dedalus.
“I’m just amazed at their stupidity and the level of malice,” he said. “I can’t be angry, I can’t be shocked because I’ve had four years of this.”
He still “doesn’t understand” why a publisher specialising in literature in translation and new writing – two of the council’s major priorities – has had funding of £25,000 removed.
And this sounds awful as well:
The British Centre for Literary Translation has had it confirmed that funding after 2008-2009 will be subject to specific conditions, which are yet to be spelled out.
Amanda Hopkinson—director of the BCLT and a fantastic translator—expressed some relief and anxiety about the decision:
“However we await with considerable interest and some anxiety to hear the new ‘specific conditions’ which we will have to fulfil,” she said, “and of which we have not been informed.” After a difficult period she hoped that the council appreciates the need to regain trust. “At the end of the day,” she continued, “the Arts Council needs the arts sector more than the other way round.”
Thankfully Arcadia had its funding restored, as did Anvil Press, but what a process . . . Obviously, the Arts Council (or any other funder) has the right and obligation to review its grantees and restructure funding if necessary, but it seems like the process got out of hand this year and led to many organizations spending more than a month focused on fighting with the ACE and trying to get their funding secured rather than focusing on their mission.
All very unfortunate, although there is a silver lining of sorts. Arcadia, together with , Barn Owl Books, Centerprise Literature Project, Dedalus, Enitharmon, Haus, Marion Boyars, Portobello/Granta and Tindal Street have founded the Publishers Liaison Group, “an informal network which will meet from time to time to discuss common funding issues and strategy in regard to Arts Council England (ACE).”
Sounds somewhat similar to Jim Sitter’s LitNet group, which is the national advocacy group for Literature here in the States—another useful and important organization.
Any UK organizations interested in getting involved with the Publishers Liaison Group should contact Gary Pulsifer at gary at arcadiabooks dot co dot uk.
Today’s update in the ongoing saga of the ACE funding cuts comes from Arcadia and Parliament.
First off, a couple of the new people who have signed on in support of Arcadia are Dominick Dunne and Caroline Michel. Which is great in and of itself, but what I find really fun are some of the “Early Day Motions” from Parliament about the cuts.
Here’s the EDM about the general cuts:
That this House regrets the timing of the decision made by the Arts Council to notify its regularly funded organisations of the details of its investment strategy; is concerned that this occurred over the Christmas period and that the appeal process is only lasting six weeks; is surprised that investment plans were announced before the publication of the McMaster Review and before the new Chief Executive of the Arts Council takes up his position in February; and calls on the Government and the Arts Council to ensure that there is sufficient time for organisations that are having their funding withdrawn to be properly consulted.
“Concerned that this occurred over the Christmas period”?!?? I can’t imagine anything so civilized (or open to interpretation as being in favor of a particular religious holiday) occurring here in the States. I mean, I guess I have a hard time envisioning anyone in Congress saying something like this either:
That this House condemns plans by the Arts Council to cut funding to Queer Up North; recognises the excellent work that organisation has done, including tackling homophobic bullying through performances of F.I.T. at local schools; notes with concern that funding cuts will lead to the cancellation of the 2008 festival in Manchester and all future touring plans, end its unique programme of work for young people and result in the immediate closure of the organisation; and therefore calls on the Arts Council to overturn its decision.
That this House condemns the decision by the Arts Council to cut funding to LipService Theatre Company; notes with concern that the timing of the decision occurred over the Christmas period, leaving very limited time to appeal; recognises the unique contribution to the Arts made by LipService, described by the Independent newspaper as Britain’s favourite literary lunatics; further notes with concern that LipService was given no warning or indication in its Annual Review 2007 that it would have its funding cut; and calls upon the Arts Council to reverse its proposal and reinstate funding to LipService for the coming year.
(Britain’s “favourite literary lunatics”—nice.)
One aspect of this that I haven’t adequately covered here is the timing issue. As referenced above—and in this op-ed piece by Ed Vaizey MP, Shadow Minister for Culture—Peter Hewitt, the current CEO of the Arts Council England is stepping down in February and being replaced by Alan Davey.
Furthermore, the $100,000 report on artistic excellence (the aforementioned “McMaster Report”) was released in mid-January, after the funding cuts had been announced. Of course, the report seems to run counter to the actions of the ACE, and it really doesn’t make sense to commission a report to figure out how best to stimulate the arts and then, less than three weeks before it’s released, slash funding for heaps of arts organizations.
Ed Vaizey sums this up quite nicely:
To be sure, the Arts Council has played a bad hand even worse. Faced with this late settlement, it should have had the courage to put the cuts on hold. Peter Hewitt should have said what is true – “I’m leaving, and a new guy takes over in February. I’ll let him read the McMaster report, and decide what he wants to do. It will be status quo for a year”. Instead, cuts have been rushed through, with, because of the Christmas period, arts organisations having just 18 working days to get their appeals together. And more and more arts organisations are showing that the decisions made by the Arts Council are based on flawed data and false assumptions. Even worse, those arts organisations that are getting an uplift have already been told. The council has sowed division among the arts community, with one organisation knowing it will only get fed if another starves.
There are two interesting developments in the ongoing saga of the Arts Council England funding cuts that are worth reporting about.
First off, last Friday The Guardian ran an article by Antonia Byatt claiming that funding for literature is actually increasing:
Far from “decimating” the arts, our funding proposals will see a significant increase in investment in the literature sector over the next three years. [. . .]
We are prioritising a number of areas, including poetry, the promotion of contemporary literature in translation, live literature, children and young people, and supporting reading through libraries and audience development.
She goes on to touch upon the criteria the ACE is using, and to highlight two presses for which they’ve proposed funding increases:
We are also looking for regularly funded organisations that work to support the best in literature through being genuinely national/international in their reach and distribution, as well as effective, well-managed, forward-looking and offering good value for money.
Two organisations for which we propose increased funding are Tindal Street Press and Bloodaxe. A relative newcomer to our portfolio of regularly funded organisations, Tindal Street Press specialises in new voices from the English regions. In its short life, its authors have won many prizes and accolades. Bloodaxe Books is among the most important independent poetry publishers in the country, with an award-winning list that spans both homegrown talent and work in translation. Bloodaxe is renowned for its imaginative and adventurous approach to marketing, and its unstinting commitment to developing new audiences.
Back on the other side of the fence, Arcadia just sent out a press release stating that two former ACE Literature Directors—poet Charles Osborne and Dr. Alastair Niven, who is also a part President of English PEN—have signed Arcadia’s petition.
This just keeps getting more and more interesting . . .
The National Book Foundation just launched a blog—“Reading Ahead”:http://readingahead.blogspot.com/— written by Harold Augenbraum.
As can be expected, the posts are very thoughtful, literary, and well-written, and the mission is quite admirable:
The blog’s purpose is to gather information and ideas in various fields that are having, or will have, an impact on literary reading: the sociology of (literary) reading, the neuroscience of (literary) reading, the marketing of literary work, delivery systems, educational approaches, and innovative projects that cultivate a passion for literature. I hope that, in the future, guest bloggers with expertise in a variety of fields will post to the blog, by their own suggestion or my invitation. In the end, we should achieve a cross-disciplinary digest.
With Open Letter gearing up to launch its first titles, and my general interest in how readers find out about books, I was particularly drawn to the post on literary marketing:
Question: how will literary books be marketed in the future? Marketing, for most literary publishers, is conservative and traditional, with small investment based on the expected small returns (or figments of large returns). Particularly for literary works, it’s often hard to see how the investment of, say, $25,000 or $50,000 could make a long-term difference in most literary books or authors, even though the book itself may have great literary merit. And where would such capital come from? A publisher once told me that his market research is “I publish the book and I figure out the market for that book when I see how many people buy it.” Not too many industries work this way, especially in the “long tail” era.
Yeah, market research. Hm. When I talk to other students at the Simon business school (where I’ve recently been taking classes “for fun”) about independent publishing, they’re usually a bit shocked by how quaint (re: out-of-touch) the industry seems . . .
Augenbraum’s final bit scares the crap out of me though:
If, as analysts suggest, the digital age brings with it a loss of personal autonomy, replaced perhaps by small-group autonomy, perhaps open source marketing campaigns could result. Yet if the literary novel in particular is the last bastion of the individual voice, can marketing based on a multiple perspective broaden its audience? And could the unthinkable happen: the editing (or even creation) of a literary novel based on early e-list feedback, the way one develops cars and edits movies? Forget print-on-demand. How about write-on-demand?
Anyway, this promises to be another great site discussing literature and books in a serious, useful, interesting way.
This morning, I received a couple interesting e-mails regarding the ACE funding cuts that we’ve been talking about for the past couple weeks. As most everyone has heard, a number of independent publishers—including Dedalus and Arcadia, two presses that do a lot of work in translations—have had the funding they receive from the Arts Council England either slashed or cut entirely.
Well, Centerprise Literature is another to add to the list. According to this message, all of their funding is being withdrawn as of April 1st.
A cut to funding could mean:
- the end to delivery of courses for writers at every level of their
development here at Centerprise;
After reading about all of these organizations losing funding, it would only be natural to assume that the ACE must’ve had it’s funding cut as well . . . Not so according to Joan Smith’s op-ed piece in The Guardian:
It takes a particular kind of ineptitude to announce a £50m increase in funding to the arts and set just about everyone in the arts world against you. This feat has been achieved by Arts Council England, which has been inundated with letters, petitions and threats of legal action from supporters of the small theatres, orchestras and independent publishers whose existence is now in doubt. [. . .]
It’s all in the name, apparently, of “the reclamation of excellence from its historic elitist undertones”.
That means trouble for such hopelessly elite venues as the Bush Theatre in west London, not to mention small publishers such as Dedalus and Arcadia, who stubbornly insist on exposing English-speaking readers to work by foreigners. [. . .]
Believe me, there is no other way for such writers to get published in this country. The dreadful state of mainstream publishing is an open secret; profit and celebrity are what drives the industry, and marketing departments don’t see either in a promising young Polish or Croatian novelist. Earlier this week, one of the country’s most distinguished publishers told me he had snapped up a Swedish crime novel, which has been a runaway best-seller in Scandinavia, after it was turned down by just about every mainstream house in London.
This kind of risk-taking is almost unknown in commercial publishing these days.
I have nothing to add. As I said before, I can’t imagine the pressure and difficulties of being on any Arts Council and making funding decisions about so many worthy organizations, but nevertheless, this kind of radical shake-up and fall-out seems pretty easy to avoid.
Rachel Deahl’s article for Publishers Weekly on how well translations sell is really interesting (not just because we’re mentioned there) and worth expanding a bit.
The main idea comes from Tom Colchie, famous translator and literary agent (and all around nice guy), who thinks that the “doom and gloom about readers avoiding works in translation is off the mark”:
Colchie also believes that given the dearth of translations published in the U.S., their hit ratio is similar to, or better than, English-language titles. “If you take the performance of the 200 to 300 translations published a year and compare them to the performance of the 200,000-plus [American] titles published, you won’t see a big difference.”
(One of the first things that jumps out to me about this is that if his numbers are accurate, then even Eliot Weinberger’s belief that only 0.3% of books published in the U.S. are in translation is overblown. According to this, the figure is closer to 0.1%.)
Echoing my comment in the article, this seems to be a statistical game of sorts. Since there are so few translations published, a higher percentage of them “take off” compared to the percentage of American authors that become household names. (In other words, if 25 of 300 literary translations do well, that’s a much better percentage than the 500 or so American books out of the 40,000+ published annually that do really well.)
It’s an interesting argument to make, especially taken in combination with Colchie’s later statement—“I now sell fewer books in a year, but sell them for a lot more money.”
This comes as no surprise, but what he seems to be describing is a publishing industry more bottom-line conscious than ever. I believe that publishers are willing to shell out more cash for books from wherever that are capable of selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Instead of being a translation vs. English question, perhaps this experience is representative of how publishing functions in a marketplace where (thanks to chains, WalMart, etc.) at any point in time, twelve to twenty books are selling spectacularly well and are everywhere (a la Shadow of the Wind or The Da Vinci Code) while most everything else is puttering along.
I’m not sure exactly what to make of this. One the one hand, the more books published in translation, the better; on the other hand, Colchie’s saying that the sheer number of translated books is declining but that the number of best-selling titles that get translated is increasing. Which, as someone who doesn’t usually read best-sellers, doesn’t appeal to me all that much.
Another interesting aspect of this article are the Nielsen numbers at the bottom. Nielsen numbers aren’t precise, and the arguments against this are well documented, but for the basis of comparison, it’s pretty illuminating. Of the four books cited, The Savage Detectives is the most clearly “literary” (in my elitist opinion) and sold 22,000 copies—a figure that is spectacular in terms of literary fiction, and demonstrates how much publicity and good attention Bolano has been receiving—but that is still 55,000 copies lower than the next book on the list, Perez-Reverte’s The Queen of the South, which has sold 77,000 copies since 2004, and it’s dwarfed by Serra’s The Secret Supper‘s, 88,000 copies and The Shadow of the Wind‘s 518,000.
I stole the title for this post from an e-mail Eliot Weinberger sent me that points out a huge discrepancy between the name of this blog and the list of January translations.
As stated on our about us page, a number of studies—from the NEA, Bowker, etc.—have concluded that approx. 3% of all books published in the United States are in translation.
As Eliot pointed out, if that figure is accurate, I missed some 300+ books on the list this month. . . And this is using a conservative figure of 180,000 titles published in the U.S. According to the latest Bowker report, almost 300,000 books were published here in 2006.
In other words, the 18 translations I’m listing for January (including poetry and literary nonfiction) is less that 0.3% of the total output in the U.S. . .
These figures do need to be parsed a bit, but even with a few qualifications and explanations, I think the results are pretty interesting.
First off, we’re really only tracking original translations of adult fiction, poetry, and some literary nonfiction. Some academic books are slipping through the cracks, and kids books have been totally excluded. (Really, there’s only so much time—if someone else wanted to provide this info, we could incorporate it.)
Also, I’m excluding re-translations and reprints of books that were previously published in the States, both of which are counted (I believe) in Bowker’s figures. Even so, I think that wouldn’t change my numbers all that much. A few Dalkey and NYRB titles added to the mix, but on the whole, over the year, this is a pretty small addition.
In terms of Bowker’s figures, the report above states that in 2006, 42,076 new works of adult fiction were published. So rather than base our percentages off the astronomical 180,000 or 300,000, it makes a lot more sense—to me at least—to focus on this number and just our fiction list.
(I’m willing to go out on a limb and state that I think this number should be representative of the whole and close to 3%. I can’t think of another category—history? cookbooks?—where the percentage of translations published would far exceed 3% and make up for any discrepancy. Unless Bowker counts language textbooks as translations or something wacky like that . . .)
So, there are approximately 3,500 new titles of adult fiction published every month. For January through March, I’ve counted 31 titles so far. Assuming I missed a bunch and we bump this up to 40 new translations, that’s still only 0.4% of all adult fiction published in the U.S.—less than half of the figure cited on our about us page, and nowhere near the oft-cited 3% figure.
Per Eliot’s suggestion, I think we should add an asterisk to our name . . .
Part of the reason for starting our monthly list was to try and get some more accurate data about the number of translations published in the States. Sure, it’ll never be 100% correct, but by the end of the year, the margin of error should be pretty low, and we’ll finally have some more concrete info with which to complain about the state of publishing. And with grumbling, good statistics are half the battle.
From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Paperspine is trying to do for books what Netflix did for DVDs. In fact, Dustin Hubbard — the Microsoft Corp. program manager who co-founded the Issaquah startup on a leave of absence this summer — said he was inspired by the online movie rental company when he came up with the idea.
It happened one night while putting a book into a crowded nightstand. Hubbard, who has spent 10 years at Microsoft, started wondering why he simply couldn’t return the book for another, a la Netflix.
Maybe they do things differently on the West Coast, but last time I checked, there was a place called a library where you could check out a book, return it when you were finished, and get another—all for free!
Sure there’s the potential for late fees at libraries, and sometimes you have to wait to get the hot new book, but with depressing stories about American reading habits coming out every other week (thanks NEA!), I have a hard time imagining anyone paying $120-$300 a year to get the 4-6 books they’ll probably read that year shipped directly to their home.
But what do I know? If it works, if it takes paying for something like this to get people to read, then great. I’m just not going to hold my breath. (Besides, why don’t you just set up a rental service for the Kindle? That would be cheaper, more efficient, and more likely to create a cache of cool.)
I made a snarky mention of this yesterday, but now that I’ve listened to the entire program, I have to say, the recent episode of On the Media is actually a really solid overview of publishing issues.
The program primarily focuses on business issues as they relate to the emergence of new media, so there’s a bit in praise of paper, a lot of info about the Kindle, Sara Nelson from PW explaining the impact of conglomeratization, and a bit more about, yes, War and Peace.
There are a number of interesting statements and ideas worth pointing out, including the idea that books should be totally free and underwritten by advertisting . . . Which probably made everyone reading cringe, but at the core, there is something to this idea. Advertising is what pays for radio stations, and makes magazines cheap and disposable . . .
The core of this idea can be extracted from the commercial marketplace and actually be evidenced in the world of nonprofits. Most nonprofit presses receive funding from the government (state and federal), from private donors, from foundations, with the goal of offsetting the losses that almost always occur when publishing literary fiction. And in the nonprofit world, we usually don’t talk as much about sales as we do about reaching readers, about finding a way to cultivate an audience for a book or author outside of the traditional marketplace model. So the idea of someone underwriting a book that’s truly just given away isn’t all that crazy . . . and would probably “only” cost $35,000 or so, depending on how many you wanted to give away.
Anyway, the real point of this post is to highly recommend this episode of On the Media. It’s available online and through iTunes for anyone living in an area (like Normal, IL) where the local NPR station doesn’t carry this program.
His main focus is on free speech and the need for independent presses that challenge the status quo, but in addition to the political dimension, his piece touches on some interesting aspects of the financial workings of independent presses, and possible models to sustain them.
Various models been tried around the world. The most famous is Raisons d’Agir, which Pierre Bourdieu started after his studies of publishing proved that the larger houses had severely restrained their political and intellectual content. Bourdieu started his firm in his office in the College de France and he and his assistant were its staff. Many books he published did extremely well, some selling hundreds of thousands. A university space (and a professor’s salary) have been misused elsewhere with excellent results.
Amen. This is similar to the model we have in place here at UR, a model that is fairly unique, merging aspects of traditional nonprofit trade presses and university programs. Schiffrin seems to see university presses as a great possible alternative to commercial presses, but one that’s gotten bogged down:
The US and Britain have a range of university presses (over 100 in the US, though they account for a mere 1% of books sold). In theory, these could be a vibrant alternative to commercial presses, but they have too often reflected the conservatism of their faculties. They are also under profit-making pressures because universities have followed the capitalist model.
Less that 1% of books sold are from university presses?!? I thought it would be a bit higher than that. . . .
Going back to his argument about the need for indie presses to preserve free speech, he concludes with a hopeful, yet realistic statement:
Newspapers and book publishers that belong to independent, not-for-profit foundations or cooperatives may be the best way to preserve political and cultural autonomy. This solution might have saved such major publishers as Le Seuil and Einaudi from being sold to conglomerates whose primary objective is profitability. For centuries publishing averaged an annual profit of 3-4%; the conglomerates want at least l0%, if not l5%, which changes the nature of what can be published.
That increase in ROI is one of the reasons that there aren’t a lot of literary translations being published these days . . . Although conversely, the fact that conglomerates function with these goals in mind means that there’s a lot of great books out there that indie presses can scoop up. . .
I totally agree with Scott Esposito’s take on my take on publishers paying more attention to marketing, especially when it comes to writing good jacket copy.
Basically, if you can convince in 50 words of less that a book is really “Borgesian,” this will do far more than any amount of trying to convince me how hip and exciting the plot is.
Exactly. This isn’t all that easy to do though . . .
In my opinion, a plot-recap makes for really crappy jacket copy, especially since I don’t really read the book for the plot. (This probably works better for thrillers, but that’s not the type of book we’re talking about.)
Northwestern University Press goes in the opposite direction, describing their books in a generally dry manner that makes them sound like a lot of work.
From Konstantin Fedin’s Cities and Years:
The cities are Berlin and Moscow, the years those of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the theme enduring: what role should the intelligentsia play in the inevitable revolution looming over society? Konstantin Fedin’s intense exploration of war and its aftermath focuses on Andrei Startsov, an intellectual who must wrestle with his ambivalence toward the convulsions in his homeland and with his love for the rebellious and fiercely independent Marie.
Well now. What that doesn’t convey is that the novel is fun, the form fragmented, and the writing engaging. But if you’re interested in the role of the intelligentsia . .
But “those in glass houses,” etc. By no means am I a good writer of jacket copy, but my goal in doing this is always to try and appeal to readers similar to me. It’s hard though, since we all read for so many different reasons. Reading is a pleasurable activity, but pleasurable to different people for different reasons. (Some do like the plot!)
Anyway, for Open Letter books, I think we should stick with the “x is like y meets z and a” strategy, with Nabokov, Borges, Cortazar, Antunes, Beckett, and Joyce being the data set for y, z, and a.
(And on a sidenote, in addition to good copy, there are other channels through which a publisher must get the word out about its books. Browsing doesn’t take place in a void, and publishers—especially small and mid-sized ones—have to pay attention to all these other ways of getting info about their books to readers.)
Clearly Three Percent is not a sports blog (we leave that to the always informed and entertaining Deadspin), but I was reading the New Yorker article on super-agent Scott Boras and am very troubled by this quote:
“I see grand houses of symphonies and performing-arts centers and such, which is great for a community to have, but on the other hand I walk four blocks away and I see a run-down school and I’m wondering, Where are our priorities?”
This isn’t to say that schools and education aren’t in need of more funding, and maybe I’m a bit sensitive, inclined to hate on Boras, and misreading this, but really, to pit arts against education seems a bit misguided. Couldn’t he have chosen the War in Iraq or a million other things people/governments waste money on? Why arts?
Just to put things in perspective, I looked up some of Boras’s clients and found that the 2007 salary for three of his clients (Alex Rodriguez $27.7 million, Barry Zito $10 million, and Carlos Beltran $13.6 million) exceeded the total amount of money awarded by the New York State Council on the Arts (the largest state arts council in the country) in the past fiscal year by almost $14 million. (NYSCA gave out $37.4 million to 1304 organizations.)
I love baseball (and sports in general) as much as the next guy, but that seems insane. Priorities. Whatever.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I picked up a number of “Book Publishing in ____” books from various cultural stands. Personally, I’m really interested in the business of publishing and to see how it developed in other countries is quite interesting. (In other words, this could develop into a series of posts . . . )
I’m still catching up on Frankfurt stuff (and will be, at least until the next FBF), and just got around to looking at the “Book Publishing in Lithuania” pamphlet I picked up.
The beginnings of Lithuanian history are interesting and troubling. Due to occupations, bans on printing in the Latin alphabet, etc., most Lithuanian books were actually published outside of Lithuania and smuggled in. This was the case for most of the nineteeth-century, then again during the Soviet occupation.
What caught my attention though was this paragraph about publishing in the 1990s:
The publishing needs of the newly formed public structure and the reformed education system steered the publishing business too. Another determining factor was the fact that in the economic crisis, the purchasing of books had become a form of investment of devalued money. Before long, publishing ranked among the most lucrative businesses, with profits reaching 500 per cent. This resulted in an increasing number of publishing companies. For instance, 500 publishing entities, which had produced at least one title, were registered in 1992, whereas the total was merely 71 in 1990.
“Among the most lucrative businesses”? That’s not something you often hear about publishing . . . In fact, there’s that famous old joke: How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune . . .Read More...
Ron Hogan has an interesting quote over at GalleyCat regarding the how to sell more literary fiction.
When a potential consumer says “I can’t afford it,” Godin claims, that’s almost always not true. “What they are really trying to say,” he explains, “is, ‘it’s not worth it.’” So instead of slashing prices to reach those consumers, Godin suggests you “tell a better, more accurate story” about your product, “and to tell it to the right people.” Or, he adds, “make something worth paying for.”
That all sounds nice and true, but I think the situation is a bit more complicated.
A few years back a Borders buyer told me that $14 was the cutoff for impulse buys of literature. For customers browsing in a bookstore, who come across a book that sounds interesting by an author they’re not familiar with, a price tag of more than $14 will dissuade a healthy percentage of people from purchasing. (Anecdotally, from my years of working at bookstores, I think this is true.)
In general, I agree with Godin—slashing the price to $12.95 isn’t the answer, but “making something worth paying for” is a real slanted view of the issue. In my opinion, what’s most important is getting information out about literary fiction to the right customers. Which can be difficult (see all the space taken up by reviews of Alice Sebold’s new book), and is somewhat beyond the control of the publisher.
Marketing totally trumps price, it’s just that marketing literary fiction is more complicated that “telling a better, more accurate story” about one’s book (product). Successful marketing is about planning and luck. About getting your book mentioned enough times in enough places that the average browsing customer recognizes it (and feels it’s an “important” book) when he/she comes across it in his/her local superstore . . .
This was mentioned in a few places yesterday, but in case you missed it, German price fixing is at risk.
When I went to Germany on an editors trip organized by the German Book Office, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it’s illegal to discount books in Germany. No matter where you buy a book it’s always the same exact price. Like stamps.
Thanks to the chain stores and Amazon, discounts have become a way of life in America (and the UK), and it was refreshing to encounter a culture that valued smaller, independent booksellers by keeping the playing field a bit level.
(Someone out there may be able to answer this, but one potential wrench in the fixed price system is the discounts publishers give to booksellers. I remember an owner of an indie store in Munich telling us that she didn’t receive the same discount as a the chains, thus severely impacting her profit margin . . . But, this was years ago, and my memory may be as shoddy as her English was . . . )Read More...
Diogenes just sent me a fully-translated version, which is absolutely fascinating. I can’t find a copy of this English-version online anywhere, but if I can get permission to post it here, I will. In the meantime, here’s some of my favorite highlights.
In terms of how publishers evaluate slush-pile manuscripts:
Spiegel: How does it work? Just open the book at any page?
Keel: I usually read the first sentence. That can be deadly.
Spiegel: And then there is no need to dig any further?
Keel: That’s right. Every day we receive a pile of unsolicited manuscripts, around 3000 a year.
Spiegel: How often do you include any of them in your catalogue?
Keel: On average, about one title every three years. So ultimately only one in 9000 gets printed. [. . .]
Spiegel: But surely you can’t just publish books that you like?
Keel: Why not? Should I publish books I don’t like? As Chekhov said, “I have only one criterion, either I like a book or I don’t.” So I’m in good company. There is no exact formula – thank God!
And on why we should read:
Spiegel: It is astounding that so many books continue to be sold – in this era of the internet, television and cinema. Why should we read?
Keel: For pleasure.
Spiegel: One can have a hot bath for pleasure too.
Keel: One can also take a book into the bathtub, which doubles the pleasure.
And on being independent and not-profitable:
Spiegel: You are one of the last independent publishers.
Keel: Major publishing houses such as S. Fischer and Rowohlt were taken over by large corporations. But who now has the final say – the corporation’s chief executive or the boss of the publishing house? I believe in curiosity, in enthusiasm. Managers want only one thing – to make sure that you don’t make a loss. We don’t mind making a loss: three-quarters of the works we publish are in the red . . .
Spiegel: It’s still like that?
Keel: Yes, it’s still like that. This faint-hearted obsession with profitability comes from America. Over there, or so I hear, they want to do away with editors, to print the manuscripts in the form in which the authors deliver them. Is that the way to save money? Every author needs an editor, a kind and critical first reader.
The one panel from Monday that hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage online is the Editors Buzz Panel. Consisting of French, German, and American editors (and Scott Moyers from Wylie—lot more below), this panel was an opportunity to highlight some really interesting forthcoming books.
Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens talked about Marie Darrieussecq’s latest book (which is the subject of a fascinating controversy); Jenna Johnson from Harcourt talked about I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and Michael Zollner from Tropen Verlag presented a book called What We Talk about When We Talk about Doping.
All the presentations were great, but what most got me going was Scott Moyers opening comments about fiction in translation. As someone who worked at Random House, Penguin, and now Wylie, he’s come into contact with a lot of big international authors. And I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But the things he said at the panel were a perfect example of how commercial publishing treats “international fiction” as a pure commodity and basically undercut a lot of the good interactions that happened earlier in the days.
First off, he started talking about W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, and that although Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit,” this was an opportunity for Random House to put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as a great European writers. Which is pretty inaccurate. New Directions (and Harvill in the UK) had been publishing Sebald for years and had already cultivated a huge reputation for him. Sebald was by no means unknown when Random House wrested the rights to Austerlitz away from New Directions in what seemed to be a pretty savage business move better suited to Wall Street than literary publishing. But RH saw an opportunity—not to promote Sebald, but to capitalize on him.
The next book he mentioned was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Which is a book with some merit, but not really the “great Barcelona novel” that it was portrayed as. But that’s an aesthetic debate, and it may be because I can name more than a dozen Spanish/Catalan writers that I have a slightly different perspective on where this fits in the Spanish literary tradition than Scott does.
What bugged me though was his insistence that, like with Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, The Shadow of the Wind sent publishers rushing to find other Spanish novelists writing just like him. Even if true, that precisely describes one of the things wrong with American publishing. This sort of pigeonholing, this looking to replicate what “worked” leads to the publication of a lot of pale imitations that are generally uninteresting and create the viewpoint that all fiction from country X is all the same.
All of these events—like everything the French American Foundation, the French Cultural Services, and the German Book Office do—were designed to promote a widening appreciation of literature from other cultures. But this perspective that Scott presented—which actually is pretty dominant in the marketplace—represents the exact opposite. Instead of appreciating art from other cultures, these publishers treat these books as commodities. The Shadow of the Wind is great because it sold well, not necessarily because it’s a great book.
There’s nothing wrong with for profit companies running their business in profitable ways, but in my opinion, expressing such a condescending, somewhat ignorant viewpoint at such a panel designed to celebrate cultural exchanges made Americans look crass and culturally naive.
Over at LitKicks there’s an interesting discussion going on about whether or not “Literary Fiction Suffers from Dysfunctional Pricing?”
Lot of interesting people participating, and the motivating point for this week’s discussion is thought-provoking:
Simon Lipskar points out the undeniable fact that book publishing is a for-profit business that benefits not only corporations but also writers and, hopefully, readers. Let’s accept this fact, and let’s all agree that we are not here to debate capitalism itself. If advocates of trade paper original publishing cannot make a believable case that adopting the lower-priced format should lead to greater general profits, then we have no case at all.
The basic sentiment at Mssv is that as soon as it’s as easy to “rip” books (converting them into a digital, transferable format) as it is to rip CDs or movies, publishing will crumble as readers illegally download books, quit frequenting bookstores, etc.
This is a complicated issue with a number of subissues to explore—personally, I think commercial presses will be most screwed by technological innovations, whereas savvy indies are in a position to take advantage of this to bring more attention to their books—but generally, I agree with Mark.
The real change that’s coming is in the way that readers find out about books. The flow of information is changing from the days when publishers relied on static ads and print book reviews to get the word out. And the presses that seize on new ideas and ways of connecting with readers stand to reap the most benefits.
A lot more can be said about this—and probably will over time—but personally, I think the next 5 to 10 years for the book industry will be really interesting to watch.
In September Vintage UK is relaunching its Vintage Classics line, and to promote this, ten Vintage Twins will be made available.
A Vintage Twin—in case you’re wondering—“consists of two books: a specially designed limited edition of one modern classic title and one established classic work. The books have been carefully selected to provide a thought-provoking combination.”
Labeled accordingly, there’s a Vintage Lust Twin featuring Tom Jones and The Rachel Papers, a Fantasy Twin of Alice in Wonderland and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and a Satire Twin of Gulliver’s Travels and Atomised (aka The Elementary Particles), to name a few.
Interesting idea, especially since it’s a “2 for 1” deal and the “literary classic” is free. Not sure that this will act as a gateway drug hooking readers on the rest of the series, but there is something interesting about pairing books and highlighting the particular aesthetic, or style, or whatnot, linking a classic book and a contemporary one.
But also a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.
David Lassman sent 18 UK publishers proposals and sample chapters, all from Jane Austen novels, and only one editor called him out on it. (See the Globe and Mail for more details.)
I could make the excuse that publishers receive dozens of proposals a day, and unless something grabs you immediately (sorry, Jane), it’s easy to skim, not really read, and robotically send out rejections.
But I won’t. A lot of editors today aren’t all that well versed in the classics, and why should they be? The marketplace dictates everything, and for a massive conglomerate it’s more advantageous to hire someone familiar with the intricacies of what Chick-Lit sells and what doesn’t than to hire someone who recites from Finnegans Wake. As a result, a lot of editors today are more familiar with the “big books” of the last twenty years than they are with the “canon,” or however you want to identify foundational works of literature. (BTW, in my opinion, this is mainly true in the U.S. and UK. Foreign editors are much more brilliant on average.)
The may be a cynical exaggeration, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of editors used an apostrophe in referring to Joyce’s book.
This really isn’t the place for Harry Potter coverage . . . If that’s what you’re looking for you can check out, well, basically any other media outlet in the world. According to the “Muggle Counter” (words I never thought I’d type) over 2 million copies of HP7 have been ordered in advance of its July 21st release. And the Guardian has run about half that many pieces on the HP franchise. . . .
Seriously though, the reason I’m mentioning Potter-mania is because of this paragraph at the end of the most recent Guardian article:
The hype over book seven is a far cry from the first instalment in author JK Rowling’s series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which had a print run of just 500 copies when it was published on June 26 1997.
That should give us all hope . . .
Daniel Green at The Reading Experience posted an excerpt from an interview with Tom McCarthy (whose book Remainder is definitely worth reading) about how literary folks really aren’t all that literary. Here’s his description of a dinner party he went to:
A few years ago I was invited to a dinner for young British novelists at the ICA. The other guests were for the most part successful published writers – unlike myself back then. The talk was of lucrative three-book deals with major publishers, review coverage, agents – anything, in fact, but literature.
When I steered the conversation with a couple of my neighbours that way, I discovered why: they were both indifferent to, and largely ignorant of, literary history. Sure, they’d read a book or two by E. M. Forster or Jane Austen back at college – but Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka, Sterne, Cervantes? Forget it. . . .
I don’t think this ignorance is confined to writers. Publishers, editors, etc., rarely ever talk about books either. Obviously there are some very well read people in the book business, but on the whole, I think booksellers (the real ones, not the B&N summer help type) are more well versed in modern and contemporary lit than 80-90% of publishing people. But we know more about Entertainment Weekly and how to create buzz, which, in the end, doesn’t really equal out, does it?
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .