OK, with a little luck I’ll be able to post a lot of new content later this week during the American Literary Translators Conference. This is one of my favorite conferences of the year, in part because of all the cool people there, in part because the panels tend to be pretty interesting. I’ll post more about this separately (maybe). For now, here’s another post from the Publishing Perspectives Frankfurt Show Daily. It’s all about AmazonCrossing, which we’ve written about before, but in this case I had a chance to interview the Amazon.com Books VP Jeff Belle and talk a bit about the unique way Amazon is looking for their titles.
In the world of translation publishing, one of the more interesting developments of the past year was the launching of AmazonCrossing, a new initiative of Amazon.com Books. The imprint’s first book—The King of Kahel by Tierno Monenembo—goes on sale November 2nd, and a second batch of six titles was announced late last month.
According to Amazon.com Books Vice President Jeff Belle, the seed of AmazonCrossing was planted a couple years back when he read a report by translator extraordinaire Esther Allen about the “three percent problem”—the fact that, of all the books published in the US, only three percent are works in translation. As Belle stated, this dismal statistic “is really at odds with Amazon’s vision of making every book in every language available to our customers.” Allen educated Amazon about the translation market, leading Amazon to start funding translations through the “Author & Publisher Giving Program,” and to launch AmazonCrossing to “discover great voices of the world that have not been translated into English and introduce them to [Amazon’s] English-speaking customers.”
Amazon.com has been moving in the direction of publishing for some time now, first with a couple of self-publishing options—CreateSpace (formerly BookSurge) is a print option, and any author/publisher can sell their eBooks through Amazon’s Kindle program. In a somewhat more traditional publishing vein, there’s also AmazonEncore, through which Amazon uses information such as customer reviews to identify “exceptional, overlooked books and authors” that deserve to have their works reintroduced to readers. These titles are available both in print and Kindle formats.
In some ways, AmazonCrossing is an extension of the Encore program, with Amazon acquiring rights and responsible for the marketing of these books. What’s interesting is that they’ve chosen to pursue international works—a category that many of commercial publishers shy away from. As Jeff Belle puts it, this “dearth of foreign translations into English” is one area of publishing that’s not well served.
As mentioned above, the first title in the AmazonCrossing program is Tierno Monenembo’s The King of Kahel, which first came to Amazon’s attention when it won the 2008 Prix Renaudot in France and just starting to plan this initiative. More than a year later, the English rights were still available, which further convinced Belle and the rest of the Amazon team that there are a lot of great books that never make their way into English.
Similar to the Encore program, customer reviews (in this case on Amazon.fr—the company’s French site) helped convince Amazon to go ahead with this book, which points to Amazon’s ability to leverage customer research. Although comments are obviously public, traditional publishers don’t tend to examine this sort of feedback when deciding whether or not to publish a translation of a particular book. This
customer-centric approach is unique, almost the diametrical opposite to the traditional “I know what readers want” mantra of most editors. “Our choices are really dictated by what our customers tell us about the books they love,” says Belle. “We’re looking for exceptional books that are effectively nominated by our customers and deserving of a wider, global audience.”
Amazon won’t specify how many translated titles they plan on publishing in any given season, but they recently announced their next six , which include a thriller (The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch), a non-fiction book on Argentina’s economic troubles (No Reserve: The Limit of Absolute Power by Martín Redrado), a YA-novel (Pizzicato: The Abduction of the Magic Violin by Rusalka Reh), a 19th-century Spanish novel (Pepita Jimenez by Juan Valera), and a controversial work of literary fiction (Field Work in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko).
Members of the AmazonCrossing team will be at the Fair, meeting with agents, publishers, and translators to spread the word about this new program. More information about AmazonCrossing and its titles can be found online.
Following up on yesterday’s posts, here’s a piece on the Russian Debut Prize that I also wrote for Publishing Perspectives. Interesting project and seems crazy in its scope—30,000+ entries a year?!
Back in 2000, the “Debut Prize” was established by the Pokolenie (Generation) Foundation to support Russian writers under the age of 25. Ten years later, the best works generated by this competition will be made available to English and Chinese readers.
According to Olga Slavnikova, winner of the Russian Booker Prize and director of the Debut Prize, “The Debut inspires young Russian writers to complete that first book. The Debut prompts them to commit to literature their unique experience, what might be described as the shock of their first encounter with grown-up life.”
By setting the age limit at 25, this prize is helping engender novels by authors who were children when the USSR collapsed, who escaped the Cold War, and are coming of age in a world that their parents could never have predicted. In the words of Ms. Slavnikova, “One may say without exaggeration that this is the most ingenuous and honest literature in Russia since 1917, the year of the deplorable October coup.”
Although tens of thousands of manuscripts are submitted for the award every year, virtually none of these “ingenuous” works makes it out of Russia. To help promote this new generation of Russian authors, the Pokolenie Foundation is launching an international program. This year anthologies of the “Best of the Debut Prize Winners” will appear in both Chinese and English.
GLAS — one of the most successful and well-respected English-language publishers of Russian literature — recently published Squaring the Circle, which includes pieces from Aleksei Lukyanov, a two-time Debut Prize finalist; Gulla Khirachev, who is mostly known for her avant-garde children’s tales, but won the Debut Prize in 2009 for her first work of fiction for adults; Polina Klyukina, who was a finalist in 2008; and Olga Yelagina, who was a finalist in 2005, among others.
These pieces have been selected from all of the winners from the past decade. The 30,000+ entries are first whittled down into a 100 author “shortlist,” and the 20-25 Debut finalists are brought to Moscow for “Debut Week” — a week of lectures, classes, talks, and an award ceremony in which winners in various categories receive 200,000 rubles (approx. £4,000 or $7,500).
In addition to GLAS’s Squaring the Circle, a Chinese anthology will also be produced. And over the next few years, collections will appear in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, in addition to annual anthologies in English. Along with promoting Russian culture, an underlying hope is that these anthologies will entice more foreign publishers to bring out translations of contemporary Russian authors.
I linked to this in a post the other day, but attached below is the complete interview I did with Douglas Rushkoff about our digital world, his new book, and why he decided to publish with OR Books.
This interview originally appeared here. And I want to publicly thank Ed Nawotka for running this in its entirety even though it was something like a thousand words longer than what he had asked for.
One of the keynote speakers at this year’s TOC Frankfurt, Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist who has authored several books on the subject, including Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Cyberspace, Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, Playing the Future: What We Can Learn from Digital Kids, Open Source Democracy, and Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. He’s also a graphic novelist whose Testament was critically acclaimed. Last year, Random House published Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back, Rushkoff’s critical look at the history and rise of corporations.
His latest book—Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age —is available from OR Books and is a very provocative look at living in our digital world. Through ten “commands” (such as “Do Not Be ‘Always On,’” “One Size Does Not Fit All,” and “Do Not Sell Your Friends”), Rushkoff examines the biases of digital technologies, urging readers to reflect on how to remain human in this age of smartphones and wired everything. Program or Be Programmed carves out a space between the pundits claiming that the Internet is ruining life as we know it and those who feel that the Internet will help create a democratic utopia.
In advance of his TOC presentation tomorrow, we had a chance to catch up with Douglas and talk to him about his new book and publishing with the upstart OR Books.
Publishing Perspectives: Your last book, Life, Inc. came out from Random House, but Program or Be Programmed is being published by the relatively new OR Books—a very interesting press that’s much smaller than RH in terms of distribution (OR Books are only available through their website), name recognition, advances, etc. What made you decide to go with OR?
Douglas Rushkoff: First and foremost, I wanted the books to be cheaper for the reader. With the traditional publishing system, there are too many middlemen, and too many people needing to justify their place in the food chain. This ends up costing a lot of money, and ultimately costing a lot of time, too.
I also wanted to release a couple of months after I finished the book, instead of a couple of years. I am tired of writing books that correctly predict a phenomenon that hasn’t happened yet, but then come out after the thing has happened. Writing about technology, in particular, is pretty tricky if you have to do it a couple of years in advance.
I also wanted to work with a house that wasn’t fixated on sell-in figures or first week sales, but one that preferred to see a book as something that could take a few weeks or even months to become popular. Big publishers are trapped responding to corporate owners who are looking for growth to match their debt structures. Unfortunately for them, publishing is not a growth industry but a sustainable industry. So the models don’t work for real books — only for runaway bestsellers. Then the focus turns to marketability of titles rather than sustainability or importance of ideas.
OR, in particular, is run by an old friend, John Oakes. We’ve been looking for a way to work together for years, and this seemed like the right project at the right time.
PP: How has the process of publishing with OR been different from that of publishing with RH? Specifically, are there different marketing strategies?
DR: I’m not really privy to the marketing. From the surface, the publishers are selling to completely different constituencies. Random House is selling to Barnes and Noble while OR is direct marketing to consumers. So these are really different models, I’m sure. Random House has to think about a whole big picture — everything from Ingram to Amazon. John only has to think about the buy button on his own site. No sell-ins, no returns. He’s got an easier job, from that perspective.
The main differences for me have been my level of direct involvement, which with OR Books has been greater. For me, this is a good thing, because I’ve been in books for a while and think I make valuable contributions. I’ve gotten to influence everything from the cover and font to press release and the strategy approaching NPR.
Of course, they’re more free to involve me because there’s no corporate politics or set policy. People in “real” publishing have bosses and departments and methods. So editors aren’t told sell-in figures, publicists have to weigh booking one author vs. another on the same show, and people are doing a lot of their work blind.
The advantage, of course, is that when you work under a big corporate imprint, you get a network of salespeople to put you into stores, you get noticed by reviewers and publications who balk at independent presses, and you get the possibility of academic or other releases. Plus, you get paid before you write the book. The big publisher can fund a year or two of research and writing and that’s no small thing. And at just a few publishers — and I’d have to say Random House is one of them — you get to be part of the continuity of publishing culture. It took decades or more to be built, and there is a sense that you’re working in a tradition.
Whether I work with a big publisher or a little one, though, I know I’m largely responsible for getting the word out. It’s a different world than it used to be, and authors are responsible for making the contacts that announce the existence of a book. So far, independents are a little better at accepting this reality. On the other hand, big publishers tend to have at least someone in the publicity department who can actually get the booker of almost any show on the phone. Or a marketing person who can talk directly to one of B&N’s buyers. There’s still a few human networks at play that matter. It’s just that they aren’t activated for a vast majority of the books being published by these places.
PP: Where did the idea behind Program or Be Programmed come from?
DR: I guess the original idea was my first encounter with networked computers in the 80’s. I wrote Cyberia, celebrating (and to some extent parodying) the ability of early cyberpunks to rewrite reality from the bottom up. These were the days of Mondo2000 and the WELL, when it seemed like anything was possible. Learning to program wasn’t just about computers, but about reality itself.
Over the years, I’ve seen people not only lose that sensibility about these technologies, but lose sight of the fact that digital technologies are programmed at all. People accept the tools and interfaces that they’re presented with as if they were pre-existing conditions of the universe.
And then we end up with all these conversations and books about whether digital technology is good for us or bad for us—does it make us smarter or dumber. As if they were these things that just got handed to us by God and are going to have some effect on us. We seem to be forgetting that we make these things, or that someone makes these things, and that they are embedded with their agendas. So kids look at Facebook, say, and they think this piece of software has been designed to help them make friends. If they even think about it that much. They don’t think of it as software that has been programmed. They just think Facebook is there to help them make friends. And they don’t realize that’s not what Facebook is really programmed for. Its purpose — the purpose of its founders and its components — is different.
So the genesis of the idea was to tell people that if they remain unaware of how their programs work — of what the programs are for — they will end up less the users of their technologies than the used.
PP: Some of the “commands” are pretty straightforward and personal—thinking of “Do Not Always ‘Be On’” and the anxiety most everyone feels trying to “keep up”—whereas others are a bit more abstract and rooted in huge socio-historical issues—such as “One Size Does Not Fit All.” Regardless, all (except maybe “Program or Be Programmed”) seem to urge caution. If there’s one message you want people to take away from this book, what is it?
DR: If you don’t know anything about the software, then you are the software.
PP: In the past you’ve written quite a bit about the power and promise of all things digital, and in comparison, this book seems a bit more pessimistic. From the intro: “A society that looked at the Internet as a path toward highly articulated connections and new methods of creating meaning is instead finding itself disconnected, denied deep thinking, and drained of enduring values.” But as you also say, the Internet isn’t going away anytime soon. Instead, it will probably continue to play a larger and larger role in our lives. What do you think would happen if we were able to recuperate a sense of humanity—an idea behind a lot of your commands—and retake control of technology? By becoming “programmers” can we change the world?
DR: I’ve been hearing this question since about 1995. “In the past, you were so optimistic, and now you are pessimistic.” So I’m wondering where this glorious past is, unless it’s like yesterday. Program or Be Programmed contains pretty much the most optimistic sentences I’ve ever written, telling readers that “this is the moment we have been waiting for” and that we are participating in “nothing less than the conscious intervention in our own evolution as a species.”
I think what you’re really reacting to is whether a particular paragraph makes you happy or sad. It is sad that most of us remain so painfully unaware of how our technologies work. It is sad that computers started out so easy to work, and that as they have become more complex we humans have become more simple. It is sad that in the US we don’t teach computer programming in school, while in India and China they do. I just state the facts.
My opinion — my argument — is that it is not too late. That’s optimistic. I don’t think we have grown too stupid or too lazy to become — at the very least — partners with our digital technologies, working toward greater autonomy for ourselves rather than just a greater number of predetermined choices.
Of course, by becoming programmers we can change the world. Programmers are building the world — embedding agendas into technologies that will live on long after we are gone.
OK, I’m bloody exhausted. There’s only so many meetings, parties, dinners, jokes, and seven-hour plane rides one can take before totally crashing. I’ve been traveling since October 1st—after spending a late night out with Paul Auster on the 30th, which seems like maybe two months ago—so forgive my sloppy posts of the day. I do have one or two more general Frankfurt things I want to write, but first I feel like reposting some of the articles I wrote for the “Publishing Perspectives Show Daily.” All apologies if you already read these, but I need a few days to get my head back together . . . Up first are a couple pieces on OR Books, a relatively new publishing house with a non-traditional business model.
This article can also be found here. And while you’re there, sign up for the free daily e-newsletter.
Speaking at both Tools of Change and the International Digital Rights Symposium, John Oakes of the newly launched OR Books elucidated his business model. Compared to traditional publishing structures, its simplicity is quite revolutionary.
Launching last fall, OR Books has a few specific strategies: it offers its authors relatively low advances (and high royalties), edits the books quickly so that they can be released months after completion (instead of years), spends the bulk of its budget on marketing each title, and licenses titles to traditional publishers. The big difference between OR and other indie presses is that OR ignores chain stores, Amazon and the like, only selling its books directly through its Website. This practice truly upends the industry’s beliefs at a time when most other publishers are trying to figure out how to make their e-books available through as many distribution channels as possible.
Every title that OR publishes is available through its site in paperback and non-DRM e-book formats. (There’s also a bundle option through which a reader can get both the paperback and e-book at a sizable discount.) As Oakes pointed out, the benefits of this system check a number of boxes on a publisher’s wish list: no returns, much more accurate pre-publication print runs, and profits that go straight to the publisher and author. OR Books author Douglas Rushkoff pointed this out in a recent interview with Publishing Perspectives, but rather than focusing on advance sales to a handful of large customers, OR Books is focused on selling real copies to actual consumers.
The OR Books business model is deceptive in its simplicity. In many ways, it’s a throwback to a time before supply-chain intermediaries permanently altered the bookselling business—a time when publishers were also printers and bookstores. It’s a model that—if successful in the long run—thrives on both satisfying the needs of customers and maximizing the publisher’s return. (It’s an obvious thing to point out, but OR doesn’t have to pay sales reps, or attend sales conferences, etc.) Although many authors and agents have been amenable to this model, Oakes said that a number of editors at traditional publishing houses are completely baffled and antagonistic toward such a strange business model.
Which might be why so many speeches at TOC Frankfurt revolved around the need for publishers to adapt by focusing more on the needs of consumers and less on how to retain old standards.
Andrew Savikas’s keynote looked at the intertwined evolution of form and format and the need to find better customer-friendly formats (i.e., apps) for things like guidebooks and other “database” titles. His underlying point—that readers still desire traditional content (classified listings, movie information) but in new, more convenient formats—really set the tone for the conference.
Pablo Arrieta’s presentation on readership in Colombia, and the restriction of content due to the lack of an iTunes/iBookstore in Latin America, was illuminating in its global perspective.
Sheila Bounford of NBNi also discussed the need for publishers to reconnect with readers, resonating with the theme of the day.
It’s true that TOC—or any call for “change” in the publishing industry, really—is mostly focused on implementing new technologies to increase revenue. That said, along with this expansion into enhanced e-books and video games comes a parallel change in philosophical outlook—which may, in the long run, have an even larger impact on the industry as a whole.
Although today is the first day in which all eight halls are buzzing with excitement (or hangovers . . . whatever), the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair officially kicked off yesterday with the TOC Frankfurt conference, the International Digital Rights Symposium, the Opening Ceremony, dozens of agent meetings at the Frankfurt Hof, and a bunch of receptions. (All of which is true, but the real Frankfurt starts around 1am when all the cool kids descend on “The Hof” for overpriced drinks and witty banter.)
I was only at TOC in the morning, and although it’s true that it was kind of the same old thing we’ve heard over and over (digital is the future! be prepared! ebooks sell! long-form narrative must adapt! videogames, videogames, videogames!), the keynote speeches were pretty solid. I particularly liked Douglas Rushkoff’s talk, which isn’t much of a surprise considering I interviewed him about his new book and TOC beforehand, and am a HUGE fan of Life, Inc. and Program or Be Programmed. But seriously, he was a bit of foil to a lot of the other presentations, urging people to slow down and think about how the biases of technologies and how that can impact our lives. He also had an awesome moment when, during his spot-analysis of the overall book trade and publishing’s incompatibility with the profit demands of holding companies, he stated that the industry will probably shrink by 40% and that the only people who have to work in books are those who absolutely love books. Paraphrasing here, but basically if you don’t love books, you should go make money elsewhere, and that book people “just want enough to get by until the end.”
All sweet sentiments in stark contrast to vibe that one gets in the Agents’ Center . . . And probably a pipedream. Although one that John Oakes of OR Books believes in as well. . . .
Speaking of which, as has been mentioned on here about a billion times, I’m helping put together this year’s Publishing Perspectives Show Daily. I’m totally biased, but I think today’s issue (and what I’ve read of Thursday’s and Friday’s) is damn good. Definitely check it out. (And Ed would knife me if I didn’t mention that while you’re reading this, you should also subscribe to their free daily e-newsletter.) I only have one piece in today’s issue, but it’s about Oakes and OR Books, one of my new favorite presses.1
Post-TOC, post-Digital Rights, post-closing Publishing Perspectives, the real fun started . . . Boris Kachka (who wrote this piece on the end of publishing) is here doing research on his biography of Roger Straus. So obviously, he had to go check out the party scene at the Hessischer Hof and the Frankfurter Hof, et cetera, et cetera. And since he’s never been to Frankfurt, I decided to make it my responsibility to help show him around. But before hitting the Hofs, we first went to a reception to celebrate the announcement that Russia is the “Market Focus” for the 2011 London Book Fair. It was a nice enough reception . . . until the Russian press officer started explaining all of the details related to book production and sales in Russia. The info was useful and all, but man, was that boring as shit. A cocktail reception just isn’t the place to hold forth for thirty plus minutes of dry lecturing . . . No offense intended, but everyone who was in there was sending eye-telegraphs and trying to get the hell out and get over to the Hessischer Hof and the Hachette party.
It wasn’t until we were on the Hessischer Hof stairs, after sneaking out one-by-one and exchanging a ton of jokes about just how uncomfortable that was, what with the closed door, the speechifying, the heat, the no drinking . . . It was only once we hit the stairs at the Hessischer Hof that I realized we had left Boris behind with the boring Russian speech . . .
And so. He eventually caught up, although I think I owe him like $70 in roaming charges . . .
1 One of the coolest articles Publishing Perspectives ever did on Frankfurt is this piece by Erin Cox on “Handy German Phrases.” Some of these are totally useful, but she somehow managed to leave out most of the best ones from the “sex” section of the phrasebook she’d referenced in creating this. I have to say, I’m sort of shocked by what Lonely Planet decided to include . . . . Here are my personal favorites:
Take this off. (Zieh das aus!)
Touch me here. (Beruhr mich hier!)
Let’s go to bed! (Gehen wir ins Bett!)
I can’t get it up—sorry. (Ich krieg ihn nicht hoch-tut mir Leid!)
Easy tiger! (Sachte!)
Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself. (Gib dir keine Muhe, ich mach es mir selbst.)
It helps to have a sense of humor. (Mit Humor geht alles besser.)
That was weird. (Das war seltsam.)
Will you live with me? (Willst du mit mir zusammenleben?)
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. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .