Over at today’s Publishing Perspectives, there’s an interesting piece by translator Burton Pike about “Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation.” This essay was written in preparation for a German Book Office panel discussion, and as such, it focuses more on bringing up issues and asking provocative questions—ones that will fit in well with the class I’m teaching this semester, and would be fun to reflect on and respond to . . . But for now, here’s just a few bits that I found interesting (really, you should just read the whole article):
I used to tell my students in translation courses that in preparing to translate a writer they could never know enough about the writer’s culture. But looking at the writing coming out of Europe now, I’m not so sure. Now I ask myself: What other culture? Or, what other culture? A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders. A broad horizontal culture seems to be replacing vertical national cultures. [. . .]
American scholars and students who discuss French or German philosophers or continental European theory frequently see no need to consult foreign sources in the original language, or to take into account what circumstances and cultural traditions in the original language might lie behind them: a colleague of mine once described contemporary English departments as “the monolingual in pursuit of the multicultural.”
In an interview in Austria Kultur, the cultural magazine published by the Austrian government, the writer Jakob Lind describes himself as “a Viennese-born Dutchman turned Israeli with an Austrian passport, Eastern European parents.” Lind lives in England, writes in German. If I translate him, what culture am I translating?
I’m not sure what direction this took in the panel discussion, but what’s always interested me (mostly because of the publishing angle), is the way that authors around the world ape current trends in Anglo-American fiction in hopes of getting their work translated into English. That sounds a bit dismissive and damning, but I remember talking with editors in Germany a dozen years ago and having someone remark, “[Germans] used to write those experimental novels, now we write like Americans!” Which totally bummed me out. The retaining of something unique about a country’s “book culture” is something I think is extremely important. And in some ways, it’s the responsibility of (certain) publishers to help preserve this by publishing and promoting works that are “uniquely French” (if there is such a thing), or at least not “from France, but just like Freedom!” Otherwise, what’s the point?
Mo Yan accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature the other day, giving this acceptance speech:
In the fall of 1984 I was accepted into the Literature Department of the PLA Art Academy, where, under the guidance of my revered mentor, the renowned writer Xu Huaizhong, I wrote a series of stories and novellas, including: “Autumn Floods,” “Dry River,” “The Transparent Carrot,” and “Red Sorghum.” Northeast Gaomi Township made its first appearance in “Autumn Floods,” and from that moment on, like a wandering peasant who finds his own piece of land, this literary vagabond found a place he could call his own. I must say that in the course of creating my literary domain, Northeast Gaomi Township, I was greatly inspired by the American novelist William Faulkner and the Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. I had not read either of them extensively, but was encouraged by the bold, unrestrained way they created new territory in writing, and learned from them that a writer must have a place that belongs to him alone. Humility and compromise are ideal in one’s daily life, but in literary creation, supreme self-confidence and the need to follow one’s own instincts are essential. For two years I followed in the footsteps of these two masters before realizing that I had to escape their influence; this is how I characterized that decision in an essay: They were a pair of blazing furnaces, I was a block of ice. If I got too close to them, I would dissolve into a cloud of steam. In my understanding, one writer influences another when they enjoy a profound spiritual kinship, what is often referred to as “hearts beating in unison.” That explains why, though I had read little of their work, a few pages were sufficient for me to comprehend what they were doing and how they were doing it, which led to my understanding of what I should do and how I should do it.
What I should do was simplicity itself: Write my own stories in my own way. My way was that of the marketplace storyteller, with which I was so familiar, the way my grandfather and my grandmother and other village old-timers told stories. In all candor, I never gave a thought to audience when I was telling my stories; perhaps my audience was made up of people like my mother, and perhaps it was only me. The early stories were narrations of my personal experience: the boy who received a whipping in “Dry River,” for instance, or the boy who never spoke in “The Transparent Carrot.” I had actually done something bad enough to receive a whipping from my father, and I had actually worked the bellows for a blacksmith on a bridge site. Naturally, personal experience cannot be turned into fiction exactly as it happened, no matter how unique that might be. Fiction has to be fictional, has to be imaginative. To many of my friends, “The Transparent Carrot” is my very best story; I have no opinion one way or the other. What I can say is, “The Transparent Carrot” is more symbolic and more profoundly meaningful than any other story I’ve written. That dark-skinned boy with the superhuman ability to suffer and a superhuman degree of sensitivity represents the soul of my entire fictional output. Not one of all the fictional characters I’ve created since then is as close to my soul as he is. Or put a different way, among all the characters a writer creates, there is always one that stands above all the others. For me, that laconic boy is the one. Though he says nothing, he leads the way for all the others, in all their variety, performing freely on the Northeast Gaomi Township stage. [. . .]
My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.
Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.
Prattling on and on about my own work must be annoying, but my life and works are inextricably linked, so if I don’t talk about my work, I don’t know what else to say. I hope you are in a forgiving mood.
The stuff about his writing, etc., is decent enough, but these few paragraphs towards the end are a bit more intriguing:
The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:
For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these. [. . .]
I am a storyteller.
Telling stories earned me the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well.
So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come.
As is detailed in today’s issue of Publishing Perspectives, the main controversy regarding Mo Yan and the Nobel is his take on the censorship imposed by the Chinese Government. One of the most outspoken critics of Mo Yan is fellow Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, who said it was a “catastrophe” that Mo Yan received the award. From Publishing Perspectives:
Müller went on to criticize Mo for hand-copying a Mao Zedong speech, in which the deceased ruler stated that all art and culture should serve the Communist government, and for doing little to help the plight of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
OK, so onto that Liu Xiaobo bit. This article from The Guardian really brings home this issue:
This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.
He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot. [. . .]
This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.
He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot.
Obviously this is something that doesn’t sit well with most Western liberal, free-speech loving folks. Again, Publishing Perspectives puts this best:
Censorship appears to be simply indefensible, but like many things between East and West, there may be a disconnect. The Chinese themselves prevaricate on the issue, sometimes tolerating dissent so long as it stays on the fringes and does not disturb the masses. When it comes to book publishing in China, the government controls access to ISBNs, printing, distribution…the entire publishing production chain. Independent publishing may be nascent, but it is hardly robust or much of an alternative. Most Chinese authors who wish to publicly criticize the country simply leave (if they can), which in turn opens them up to criticism that they have lost touch about the country and have no authority on which to comment about it. Those who stay, like Mo Yan, make compromises.
Publicly, the Chinese Communist Party says censorship is necessary to govern a sprawling nation. But what goes unsaid is that censorship is also a hammer, one which enables them to beat down opposition and sustain power. After all, knowledge is power and if you control the means of access to knowledge, you control the power. Plain and simple.
So, yeah. What’s curious though is this review of Pow! in which Andrea Lingenfelter complicates the view that Mo Yan is a government stooge:
If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. The narrator is a child in a man’s body, sexually frustrated, powerless, and poor. Who’s on top in this society? Corrupt village heads and Party officials with their Audi A6s and Remy Martin cognac. The peasants get rich feeding the unseemly appetites of China’s new urban bourgeoisie with bogus and sometimes toxic products, while the countryside itself turns into an abattoir. This is the Reform Era and these are the Party bosses who have guided it. In case we miss the point, the narrator states: “Ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children, who are kicked about like mangy dogs” are more likely than attractive and happy children to grow up to be “thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers.” If China’s leaders and low-lifes are drawn from the same pool, what hope is there?
In the end, hopefully the art transcends the artist? I mean, I do know a lot of artists I’d rather not know, especially since it reflects on their work. And I’m personally still interested in reading more of his works—especially Pow!. That said, this is a blow to the credibility of the Swedish Academy (in my opinion), which is definitely not what it needs . . .
In honor of his “eloquent and fearless battle against political repression,” the German Publishers and Booksellers Association has awarded its prestigious 2012 Peace Prize to Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who walked out on his native country and landed in Germany a year and a half ago to pursue what he calls “freedom to write and publish.”
“In his prose and poetry, Liao Yiwu erects an evocative literary monument to those people living on the margins of Chinese society,” says the statement issued by the association’s board of trustees. “The author, who has experienced first-hand the effects of prison, torture and repression, is an unwavering chronicler and observer who bears witness on behalf of the outcasts of modern China.”
A native of Sichuan, China, Liao Yiwu is a poet, musician, novelist and documentarian. He has authored Corpse Walker, God is Red, For a Song and A Hundred Songs and Bullets and Opium, all of which have been translated into multiple languages including English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish and Polish.
In the Corpse Walker, for which the Peace Prize was given, Liao has recorded his interviews with 27 Chinese living at the bottom rungs of society, from a grave robber and a leper, to a professional mourner paid to wail at funerals, and a human trafficker. Liao’s research took 11 years, and his final product is a stunning series of portraits of a generation and class of individuals ignored in history books and unacknowledged in the accounts of the Communist China.
And congrats by proxy to Wen Huang, who both wrote this piece for Publishing Perspectives, and translated The Corpse Walker into English.
Our pals over at Publishing Perspectives have an interesting couple of pieces up this morning on the fantastic Russian writer Master Chen (the penname of Dmitry Kosyrev): one is an interview with the author, and the other about a Kickstarter campaign started by Russian Life Magazine to fund the translation and publication of Master Chen’s Silk Road Trilogy: The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, The Pet Foal of the House of Maniakh, and The Pet Monkey of the House of Tang.
Master Chen was at a bunch of Read Russia events at BEA, and it was a pleasure to hear him speak about his work. There are a vast number of fascinating Russian writers who have yet to have any of their works translated into English, Master Chen among them, who blow my mind with the fantastic creativity of their ideas and the originality of their writing styles. If you think you know a lot about Russian literature because you’re fond of the classics, you would be pleasantly surprised at how much diversity there is in the Russian literary world today.
In the interview with Daniel Kalder on Publishing Perspectives, Master Chen discusses his style as a mixture of thriller and high literature, a unique Russian form of genre writing, as popularized by Boris Akunin:
Where do you fit on the genre spectrum?
Well, if you can imagine a cocktail of James Clavell and Robert Silverberg shaken with a bit of Salman Rushdie and sprinkled with Somerset Maugham, that’s about where I belong. Christie and Simenon have nothing to do with me, since I’m not sure I write detective novels as such. Sometimes I think that I write music, only problem is I never learned how to write it down, so I use letters.
His work features prominently Asian themes and stories, Master Chen’s area of expertise, like those that make up the Silk Road Trilogy:
Your story in the Akashic “Moscow Noir” anthology was set in contemporary Moscow, but hinted at the Soviet past. Usually however you set your stories in the East. Is there a reason why you avoid the Soviet Union and Russia?
Fear of competition, probably. I love being a monopolist. Nobody among Russian writers knows the things I know, so why should I dump my advantage, especially in the Asian Age that is already here?
There is one more thing which I felt when I was working on my latest novel The Wine Taster which, after all this time, is about Russia (but begins in Germany and ends in Spain). Even though it is a clear case of monopoly again, since no Russian writer knows about wine as much as I do, I still felt that I did not quite like writing about Russia, it’s kind of a constraining task for me, locking myself within Russian borders. Anyway, look at how many “real” Russian writers there are, still nagging at it: hopeless country, hopeless people, things are so bad…They were doing it in the 19th century, they’re still doing it. You don’t need me if you buy their depressive lamentations. I’d rather tell my readers: the world is dazzling, it offers you so much fun, stop banging you head against the same old wall, there are so many things to learn and to do. And by the way, if you know the world, then maybe you will start seeing your own country in a different way.
The idea of Kickstarter campaigns to fund translations is brilliant—anything to see more translations released in English is a good idea—and I think we will see many more crowd-funded projects from independent and small presses (and authors, of course, looking to self-publish) in the future, the same way many musicians and record labels are using Kickstarter to to fund music video shoots, recording sessions, and album releases. The upside for the creator is that you are in direct communication with your audience, something the publishing world could only stand to improve upon, and the upside for the audience is that they feel like they have a direct impact on the creation of a product they want to see; it’s a novel take on the market economy, and I hope to see more worthwhile projects funded any way possible.
Support the project to translate Master Chen into English, head over to the Silk Road Trilogy’s Kickstarter page and donate what you can, and think about any other foreign authors deserving of translation campaigns on Kickstarter, then let us know your thoughts!
Right now I should be getting on a plane in Cape Town to head back home after the 29th International Publishers Congress. UNFORTUNATELY, the
jags employees at Delta’s ticket counter in Atlanta refused to let me board the plane since my passport doesn’t contain a complete blank page. OK, I get it, I get in, countries have laws and those laws must be obeyed, but eff you ATL airport for not having extra visa pages to stick into my passport, and eff you South Africa for being so strict (supposedly Delta gets fine $10,000 for every passenger arriving there without a blank passport page).
So after spending 13 hours flying to and from Atlanta (WHERE THEY LOST MY BAG), I came back home to Rochester and wrote this speech which Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the International Publishers Association, read on my behalf.
It’s really cool that he was able to do this—I felt horrible for having to miss the conference—and also cool that Ed Nawotka ran it in Publishing Perspectives. You can read the whole thing at the link above, but here’s a bit from the end, where I tried to tie everything together into some points of advice for everyone:
The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning
We have entered a confusing age in the evolution of books and publishing. After ages of conglomerations conglomerating and other inward mingling trends (e.g., B&N making the same books available everywhere in the country, like McDonalds hamburgers), the world has suddenly fragmented. Certain books are only available on Amazon, there are 10,000 for every sub-genre of a sub-genre, and readers live everywhere, accessing it all in a plethora of ways.
This is daunting to some, exciting to others. For a small press looking to do books that fit a particular niche (a la Open Letter), this is a fantastic situation. Unlike years past when we fought for space in the same five review outlets and tried to convince the same booksellers to handsell our books, we can now go directly to our customers, and can cultivate an audience in ways that never existed before.
So, to sum this all up into one list of tips and anecdotes, here are some thoughts on how authors, translators, agents, and publishers can take advantage of this situation:
Agents: Quit screwing around with e-book rights. I know that for some, this is the touchiest of touchy subjects, but when an agent doesn’t sell us the e-book rights to a translation we’re publishing, I want to condemn them to a dark circle of hell. Audiences are diverse, readers like to read in all formats, why would anyone stop the momentum a publisher might have with a book in the hopes you can sell these later to some larger company? This is ridiculous and my experiences with Zone and Children in Reindeer Woods—which sold out quickly and were unavailable while we reprinted and sat around NOT having the e-book rights—point out the stupidity of this agenting policy.
Translators: Community is your greatest hope. Most everyone in the book industry is whiny. And underpaid. And underappreciated. Translators more than most. But in a world in which expertise exists outside of the conventional outlets (newspapers, magazines, radio shows), translators can be extremely valuable in cultivating a community of readers interested in a particular book/set of books. Make all the connections you can—books aren’t sold through reviews or advertisements anymore, they’re sold when one reader talks to another reader.
There are also bits for Publishers, Authors, and Everyone, but you have to visit Publishing Perspectives to read those . . .
So, as with years past, Publishing Perspectives asked me to write up something about this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. I did so, but unlike years past, I wasn’t as effusively complimentary . . . I feel bad criticizing PEN WV because the festival has been such a huge boon for book culture over the years and because it was thanks to WV that Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie spoke here in Rochester back in 2008.
That said, no one can rest on their laurels, and after the past couple festivals, I think it’s worth taking a more critical look so that the festival can move forward and reach its full potential.
Here’s a bit of my piece:
Goals of the Festival
Before I start explaining what I think would make for an Ideal World Voices (IWV), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what a festival like this is trying to accomplish. According to the “Letter from PEN” at the front of the program, “we seek to present the best of national and international literature and by doing so we adamantly focus on reinforcing the importance of the premise that freedom of expression is the foundation of meaningful existence and the essence of brave and great art.”
OK. That’s great grant writing speak. Seriously. I’d drain my life savings to fund “brave and great art” that gets at the “foundation of meaningful existence.” (Although the line about focusing “on reinforcing the importance of the premise” is pretty weak.) But this program isn’t written for the National Endowment for the Arts . . . or at least it shouldn’t be.
In my vision of the IWV, the festival would set out to accomplish a few things that I think are central to preserving and enhancing a healthy literary culture in America:
1. Raise the profile of international literature and translation, thus expanding the horizons of readers and fostering an international dialogue about art and writing.
2. Get books in the hands of new readers, because without readers none of this means anything, and sales will help expand the reach of the festival as a whole, thus encouraging more publishers, readers, and foundations to support it.
3. Focus on the average reader, NOT the members of the publishing industry who already are overwhelmed by book events and rarely actually buy anything.
4. Be entertaining, otherwise you’re just shoving medicine down the throats of the unwilling.
5. Offer something unique, something you can’t pull off anywhere else in the world.
To me, those things seem totally obvious, and like they were part of the original WV DNA. Perhaps it’s all a bit lofty to think that a festival can help improve book culture. I just don’t see the point of not trying to do this. And not to take grant-speak too seriously, but I don’t think anyone walked away from this year’s festival suddenly aware that “freedom of expression” is important. Readers don’t want to be preached at — they want to enjoy themselves and find out about interesting things.
Click here to read it all, including my recommendations on how to make this a better festival.
I think this press release speaks for itself:
Writers Omi at Ledig House Translation Lab, Fall 2012
Writers Omi at Ledig House, a part of Omi International Arts Center, has been awarded a grant from Amazon.com to fund Translation Lab, a weeklong special, intensive residency for five collaborating writer‐translator teams in the fall of 2012. Writers Omi will host five English language translators to the Omi International Arts Center for one week. These translators will be invited along with the writers whose work is being translated. This focused residency will provide an integral stage of refinement, allowing translators to dialogue with the writers about text‐specific questions. It will also serve as an essential community‐builder for English‐language translators who are working to increase the amount of international literature available to American readers.
The dates for Translation Lab are November 9‐16, 2012. All residencies are fully funded, including international airfare and local transport from New York City to the Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, NY.
Writers Omi will be accepting proposals for participation until July 1, 2012. Translators, writers, editors, or agents can submit proposals. Each proposal should be no more than three pages in length and provide the following information:
Proposals should be submitted only once availability for residency participation of the translator and writer has been confirmed. All proposals and inquiries should be sent directly to DW Gibson, director or Writers Omi at Ledig House at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m sure some people will object to translators, international writers, and literary readers benefitting from this, but I’ll save that snark for after the Salon.com article about this topic comes out. (How’s that for a tease?) . . .
. . . Although I can’t resist pointing out that this line is remarkably stupid: “Suddenly Amazon began giving money away, but only to specific organizations of its choosing.” Really?!? They chose who to give their money to? FOR SHAME. I wonder if the NEA—or, I don’t know, every foundation in the history of fucking foundations—has ever considered doing something so radical as only giving away their money to organizations they want to support. SO IMMORAL. No, that article doesn’t sound like sour grapes. Not at all. Especially since it’s written by a “for-profit” press, which, I’ll take to assume means “completely ignorant of the inner workings of a non-profit press.”
Sorry. Just had to get that off my chest. Now go on and apply for this Translation Lab. It’s much >> all the bitching and moaning by people who don’t do dick for translators.
OK, done. For real this time.
I’ve been predicting this for a while, and still think a Spotify for ebooks would be a $1million idea. (Or a $1million bankruptcy. Whatever.) Anyway, from today’s Publishing Perspectives:
Everything you can read in a month for just €9.99 sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? That is what Booquo, the new digital venture of Circulo de Lectores — the book club owned by publishing giants Planeta and Bertelsmann — is offering, making them among the few brave enough to tread the forbidden path of access vs. ownership that frightens so many print publishers in this digital age. [. . .]
Booquo has two business models — conventional and subscription. The first allows you to rent movies (from a selection of 1,000) and buy e-books (some 10,000 titles are on offer) that is open to anybody who visits the site. This shop, which functions like any other e-retailer, has a partnership with Filmin for the movie rentals and uses the e-distributor Libranda (of which Planeta and Bertelsmann are main shareholders) for downloadable e-books, which are sold at the same fixed price that anybody will find at Amazon Spain or Casa del Libro. The second is the “club,” which offers a one month trial subscription of € 0,99 in an opt-out system that will charge your credit card €9,99 per month thereafter till the account is cancelled.
Today’s Publishing Perspectives is all about Jellybooks, a new service for “Discovering, sharing and group buying ebooks.” Online book discovery was the focal point of the last couple weeks of my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class, so this comes at a perfect time . . .
Anyway, here’s a bit of Amanda DeMarco’s article:
Set to launch in early spring, the Jellybooks experience corrects some common mistakes in online book browsing, says Rhomberg: “We have spent many months trying to understand why physical bookshops still play such an important role in discovery.” For example, people really do use book covers in deciding what to read, so you won’t see thumbnail reductions. Interestingly (but very right when you think about it), cost isn’t much of a factor in choosing a book: “We found that price information plays very, very little role when users try to decide what makes for a great read. Clearly it matters when they have decided to buy a book at which point they will shop around (i.e. buy online and not in a physical store), but during the discovery process, price information is not a factor, so lets get rid of it.”
Once a user finds a book that looks interesting, they can download the first 10% to a personal cloud library account to read later on a device of their choice. These samples will be available two to six weeks before the title appears in stores. There’s no DRM, and they can be shared with a link without restriction. [. . .]
Once you’ve started browsing, downloading, and sharing, Jellybooks will use the information it has gathered to offer you special 50-percent off “Sweet Deals” on books that fit well with your choices so far. Not every Jellybooks user will be notified about every sale. “Books are quite personal and you don’t want people to get the wrong perception that they’re getting irrelevant stuff or too much stuff. So your reading and sharing behavior allows us to determine if you would be interested in getting the deal.”
Similar to Groupon, the deal only happens if enough people sign on to purchase, which means sharing is important for attaining the required number. If it’s reached within the 12-hour span, the book is downloaded (Sweet Deals are currently e-books only) and your credit card is charged. One important difference from Groupon, Rhomberg notes, is that “the discount has to be earned by the group as a whole. With Groupon it often just automatically goes over. Here we don’t want you to feel it’s too automatic and so you’re lazy…In its nuances it’s constructed to be a little more social and a little bit more about recommendations.”
Sounds like an interesting addition to the constantly growing list of discovery sites . . . I signed up to receive notification when this goes live and will definitely post about it once it has and I’ve had a chance to play with it.
Today’s Publishing Perspectives has a special feature on Europa Editions one of the coolest presses out there. It’s mostly an interview with editor (and translator) Michael Reynolds, who recently moved to New York from Rome to work in Europa’s U.S. office.
PP: How would you characterize Europa’s publishing philosophy?
Michael Reynolds: It’s an extension of the original idea of Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola. They started publishing authors from Eastern Europe in Italy about 35 years ago, when very few other publishers were doing so. Europa Editions is an extension of this same idea. Six years ago when the company was founded there were so few non-anglophone authors being published in America. It struck us as a shame that readers had no access to these authors, and, at the same time, it presented itself as a business opportunity.
PP: How have you developed such an avid fan base in such a short time?
MR: We publish for readers. The kinds of books we acquire, the way we package them, the way that we do outreach and try to create a dialogue with our readers, as opposed to publishing for critical acclaim or academic acceptance; we have our readers in mind at every stage of the process. We have been rewarded for this approach by their enthusiasm. Booksellers, too, are a very important part of that. We give them books that they can feel passionate about, that they can be proud to display, and most importantly that they can sell.
PP: How would you describe your readers?
MR: I would probably put them into two groups. There are those who are curious to read something from another country because it is from another country, and then there is a larger group of readers who don’t really care where a book comes from or what language it was written in. They are interested in an entertaining read, food for thought, quality fiction, a strong story — more or less the same things they look for when they chose any book, by an international author or otherwise. There are many publishers doing work in translation that are really good at reaching the first group of readers, but perhaps less expert in reaching the second group.
Click here to read the entire piece.
Over at Publishing Perspectives, there’s a profile piece by Hernán Iglesias Illa on Edith Grossman, translator extraordinaire and author of Why Translation Matters. (Which I wrote about at length for Quarterly Conversation back when it came out.)
Let’s start with an interesting part about Grossman’s recent translation of Don Quixote:
Grossman fell in love with Spanish as a teenager, thanks to a Spanish teacher “who was very good.” She read Don Quixote for for the first time in Philadelphia, where she grew up, in Samuel Putnam’s classic 1949 translation.
The half-century gap between Putnam’s version and hers can be seen from the very first sentence of the book. Putnam translates the legendary beginning of Cervantes (“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme”) as: “In a village of La Mancha the name of which I have no desire to recall.” It’s an accurate translation, but somewhat clumsy, and that feels a bit dated. Grossman, less forced to follow the literality of the sentence and with an ear more attuned to capture Cervantes’ intention, writes: “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember”.
This “I do not care,” disdainful and conversational, reflects much better the mocking spirit of Don Quixote’s narrator, who from the first sentence introduces himself as an unreliable guy.
Is all these subtlety worthwhile? For Grossman, there is no doubt. “The importance of translation is self-evident,” she writes in her book. Maybe that’s why she feels bad about her battered professional colleagues, “poorly paid and with no job security.” She describes most of them as people “who do not look for fame or fortune but do their work out of love for literature.“
She sure is direct . . . and honest. Which can result in some rather discouraging statements, such as this:
In her book, Grossman mentions the well-known fact that only three percent of the books published in the United States, Great Britain and Australia are translations, while in Europe and Latin America this percentage number fluctuates between 25% and 40%. “We English-speakers are not interested in translations,” says Grossman. (An interviewer infected with translators’ jargon would have commented that Grossman said this “with a sigh”, or “shaking her head.“) “I don’t believe that this will change soon, since almost all publishers are part of large corporations and make their decisions under enormous pressure to be profitable.”
I mention then that a few small and medium US publishers have recently published translations of books by César Aria, Alejandro Zambra and Juan José Saer. “I love these publishers, and they have good people working there,” she says. “But they are too small, they have a lot of trouble getting adequate distribution and good publicity or reviews in the media.”
Well, OK. I was going to complain here about how difficult it is getting books into bookstores where the buyers won’t even take a call because “that sort of stuff doesn’t sell here on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.” (Or in Nebraska, the Mountain & Plains states, or wherever.) And I was going to point out that Juan Jose Saer’s Sixty-Five Years of Washington sold out its first print run and was reviewed in the New York Times and The Nation among other places. But whatever. She’s right.1 Even at our best, the lousiest piece from crap from Corporate Publisher X will get more penetration into the marketplace, which is the slow sick sucking part of the business, and I’m not sure it will ever really change.
Obviously, Internet retailers have leveled the field a bit—all of our books are just as available through Amazon as anyone else’s—but in that case, when a reader is faced with an overwhelming number of choices (approx. 3 million new ones each year, including tons and tons of $.99 entertainments), it’s tricky for an unknown author from Peru to make it through. Ideally, when everything’s available, people would try new things and find some niche tastes, but in reality, we search for what we already know we want to find, and bust the Bieber while reading Twilight. But that’s a subject for another post and/or book . . .
Anyway, Edie definitely calls it like she sees it, and although I have to be more optimistic than she is (otherwise, this whole thing—getting up in the morning, working at a small press, writing this blog—seems pretty damn bleak), it’s true that our impact is at least partially handcuffed by economic realities.
All that said, I’ve been reading the new Saer book, Scars, and am BLOWN AWAY. Everyone needs to buy this—it’s absolutely incredible and the most compelling book I’ve read in a while. Not to overstate the point, but it reminds me why reading matters.
1 At least about Open Letter. I think the presses distributed by Norton—Dalkey Archive and New Directions—and the ones distributed by Random House and Penguin—Europa Editions, NYRB, Melville House—do get into almost all the locations they need to.
Here’s a brief description:
“Our program breaks a book up into 100 scenes and measures the ‘DNA’ of each scene, looking for 132 different thematic ingredients, and another 2,000 variables.” A reader can go to the BookLamp site, which was launched in beta last week, and do a keyword search for titles that meet the criteria similar to a title they plug into the site. Pundits have dubbed it the “Pandora for Books,” though Stanton prefers the term “Book Genome Project.”
“Say you’re looking for a novel like the The Da Vinci Code. We have found that it contains 18.6% Religion and Religious Institutions, 9.4% Police & Murder Investigation, 8.2% Art and Art Galleries, and 6.7% Secret Societies & Communities, and other elements — we’ll pull out a book with similar elements, provided it is in our database,” says Stanton. [. . .]
But can a computer really accurately assess the content of a book? Stanton thinks so. “Our original models are based on focus groups,” he says. “We would give them a highly dense scene and a low density scene, for example, and ask them to assess them, which gave us a basis for training the models. Then we looked at books that might exceed the models and tweaked the formulas. In this way, our algorithms are trained like a human being.”
BookLamp quantifies such elements as density, pacing, description, dialogue and motion, in addition to numerous nuanced micro-categories, such as “pistols/rifles/weapons” or “explicit depictions of intimacy” or “office environments.”
I’m totally a sucker for this sort of shit . . . I think it’s great that people are finally thinking about how readers find books; I think it’s maybe detrimental to only read books that fit your fiction prejudices. (Of course, what example does the founder of Booklamp use in the interview? The fucking Da Vinci Code. Dear god, please make it stop.)
Knowledgeable recommendations used to be the function of booksellers, but since we, as a culture, seem not to need them (or bookstores) at all anymore, there are a number of book sites popping up to fill this void.
I’m sure this is over-simplifying, but there seems to be two major approaches to automated recommendations: the “similar user” approach, which is what Last.fm and GoodReads use and is based on the idea that if you like A, B, & C, and a lot of people who also like A, B, & C, also like Q, then you’ll probably like Q as well; and the “similar component” approach, which is what’s in play with Booklamp and Pandora and uses top down analysis to recommend books/music with components similar to books/music you like.
Personally, I prefer the first approach, and have never really gotten Pandora, nor do I see how my favorite books can be accurately quantified (The Sound and the Fury is 25% suicidal tendencies and 25% narrated by a mentally challenged character? Or The Crying of Lot 49 is 48% paranoia and 88% too cool for school?)
Now that two of the three recommendation sites are at least in their beta phases—Bookish is still in the works—it seems sort of worthwhile to check and see what these sites recommend . . . It’s one thing to talk about the theory and drool over hot catchphrases like “discovery” and “genome,” but another to find out that no matter what you put in, you’re told that you should read Twilight.
I’m not sure I can convince you of this, but I’m doing this test live . . . I haven’t looked up any of these books yet, so I have no idea what I’ll find. (It’s like live blogging! Which I believe is now called “tweeting.” Anyway.)
So, first up, the book I have tattooed on my arm—The Crying of Lot 49.
Booklamp: No results. Well that’s unfortunate . . . Skipped right over the paragraph in the Publishing Perspectives article about how they currently only have 20,000 Random House books in their database . . .
GoodReads: The Recognitions by William Gaddis, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, Falconer by John Cheever, Call It Sleep by Henry Roth.
OK, not so sure about the last couple, but the GoodReads recommendations are fine. Gaddis rocks, but I love JR more than The Recognitions, and Sot-Weed isn’t even close to my favorite Barth book. Still, not bad. Predictable, but not bad.
Since Booklamp is so limited in scope, I’m using their “Author Browse” function to find a good example . . . And oh, look, they have a listing for The Sound and the Fury! My snotty prediction about what the make up would be was pretty crap . . . Instead of confused narrators and philosophical issues about time, the five most prominent “StoryDNA” elements according to Booklamp are: Financial Matters, Family Connections, Domestic Environments, Automobiles & Vehicles, and Nature/Forests/Trees. The fuck?? Seriously? This does not bode well . . .
Booklamp: Sanctuary by William Faulkner, Moon Women by Pamela Duncan, Leo and the Lesser Lion by Sandra Forrester, Good-bye Marianne by Irene Watts, and Telling Lies to Alice by Laura Wilson
GoodReads: Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, Loving by Henry Green, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Although they aren’t the first authors that come to mind when I think of William Faulkner (I was expecting Flannery O’Connor), I do love me some Henry Green and Elizabeth Bowen. And to be completely frank, I have no fucking idea what any of the Booklamp recommendations are. Irene Watts? Leo and the Lesser Lion?? Maybe I’m just ignorant and missing out on great fiction . . .
Leo and Lesser Lion. Listed by the publisher as Juvenile Fiction: A heartwarming family story set during the Depression that reads like a classic.Everyone’s been down on their luck since the Depression hit. But as long as Mary Bayliss Pettigrew has her beloved older brother, Leo, to pull pranks with, even the hardest times can be fun. Then one day, there’s a terrible accident, and when Bayliss wakes up afterward, she must face the heartbreaking prospect of life without Leo. And that’s when her parents break the news: they’re going to be fostering two homeless little girls, and Bayliss can’t bear the thought of anyone taking Leo’s place. But opening her heart to these weary travelers might just be the key to rebuilding her grieving family.
Oh, my. Booklamp fail. “Juvenile Fiction”?? I’ll bet $1million that there’s not a single stylistically interesting about this novel. And I’ll also bet that there’s no possible way I’d read this book and be like, “wow, I’ve never read a book more like Sound and the Fury than Sandra Forrester’s little gem!” Fuck. And no.
So far Booklamp is coming in a distant second . . . And exposing all the flaws of this top-down recommendation approach. This system really doesn’t seem to account for writing style, which, in my opinion, is maybe the most important feature of any work of fiction. Sure, it’s got “automobiles” and I do like to read about people who move from one point to another, but if the writing is shitty, there no number of “automobile/vehicle” scenes that will save a novel. And how do you identify the “genome” for exciting writing? (Not to bang a dead drum, but this is why booksellers and librarians and actual readers are so goddamn important.)
Let’s try one more, this time with feeling: Independent People by Halldor Laxness.
Booklamp: the first four are all Laxness books, which seems a bit of a cheat, so I’ll skip those . . . The Writer and the World by V.S. Naipaul, Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett, and Walt Whitman’s Secret by George Fetherling
GoodReads: Njal’s Saga by Anonymous, Angels of the Universe by Einar Mar Gudmundsson, The Pets by Bragi Olafsson, The Blue Fox by Sjon, and Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun.
Interesting to end with this book . . . Booklamp’s recommendations are a lot less country-specific compared to GoodReads. But on the whole, I think I like the GoodReads recommendations better, especially since they include one of our books.
There’s no conclusion to this post except that I find this all very interesting in theory, and flawed in execution. I’m sure both of these sites (and Bookish) will get better and better as time goes on and data accumulates, and will play a larger role in how books find an audience as booksellers continue to decrease in number . . .
As we announced last week, for the rest of June, all nine of our ebooks will be available for $4.99/title—a pretty good bargain, especially since they’ll go back to the standard $9.99 on July 1st . . .
You can find info about all our available ebooks by clicking here here. (In case anyone’s interested, the best-selling ones from the last week are: The Golden Calf followed by The Pets, and then Guadalajara and Death in Spring.)
After making our pricing announcement, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives asked me to write a piece explaining our decision, some stuff about ebook pricing in general, and my problems with the $.99 ebook.
Here’s a link to Why Selling Ebooks at 99 Cents Destroys Minds, which includes this:
But what’s really at the top of the e-book best-seller lists? As of this very moment (10:10 pm on Wednesday, June 8th), here are the top five and their prices: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner, $0.99; My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler, $1.99; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, $5.00; Summer Secrets by Barbara Freethy, $4.99; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, $9.99.
So aside from The Help, which is the 9th bestselling book in paperback, the top five are all $5 or less. And aside from The Help, none of these books are in the top 10 for Literary Fiction paperback sales. So what does this mean?
At BEA, Keith Gessen introduced me to the works of John Locke (probably not the one you’re thinking of), a best-selling Kindle author whose books are all sold for $0.99. He made over a hundred thousand of dollars in royalties last year — far exceeding the wildest dreams of most every mid-list (if John Locke is even midlist) author in the country. Having read the opening of one of his “Donovan Creed” novels, I can assure you that he’s not selling all these books due to his talent. No offense intended, but let’s be real about this — it leads to a much more interesting conundrum.
And goes on from there . . .
Ed wrote the daily “conversation piece” for Publishing Perspectives, which he entitled Can Affordable Literature Ever Compete with ‘Palatable Plonk?’
As discussed in today’s feature story, you can now buy any number of e-books for 99 cents or less on Amazon. Few would mistake what’s being sold so cheaply as high literature, but one has to acknowledge that it takes skill to craft something that a large audience of people will enjoy.
In the wine business, the fact that you can now buy drinkable box wine in your local gas station/supermarket has indeed expanded the audience for wine. The hope is that drinkers, as their palette becomes sophisticated, will move up the price scale to sample more challenging fare. [. . .]
Can the same be said for the book business? Certainly just think of fiction as red wine, and non-fiction as white, each goes with a mood, setting, circumstance.
Ultimately, the question is not whether inexpensively priced literature entice new readers and serve as a gateway for readers to discover new writers, but can it ever compete, at lower prices, with the John Locke’s and Amanda Hocking’s of the world? And, at the end of the day, does it matter so long as everyone’s needs get met?
In my opinion, the answer is no, not when — to go back to the wine analogy — the cheap stuff can get you just as drunk. Of course, you also have to remember that with the cheap stuff, once the buzz wears off the hangover is often much worse — and you’ll have an even harder time facing yourself in the harsh light of day.
Be sure to check out the comments—that’s where the real fun comes in . . .
As reported by Amanda DeMarco in Publishing Perspectives, Switzerland has reinstated its fixed price system for books.
On March 18 the Swiss parliament approved a fixed price system for books in German-speaking Switzerland, both for online and in-store sales as of next year. The debate over fixed book pricing is a complicated and volatile one in Europe. Various degrees of price control exist side by side, and countries vacillate on the legality and benefit of fixed price systems. In Germany all books, including e-books and books sold as apps, are included in the fixed price system. French law excludes books that don’t closely correspond to a printed edition (apps), as well as foreign buyers and sellers. Britain hasn’t had fixed book pricing since the Net Book Agreement was declared illegal in 1997.
I’ve written about the “fixed price scheme” several times before (even in 2007(!) in relation to the Swiss), but in case you’re not already familiar, under this law retailers are banned from discounting books. So if you want to buy The Pale King, it’s the same $27.99 at Barnes & Noble, your local indie store, and in the airport. (And, in some countries, on Amazon.com and other online retailers.) Based on the cited consequences of this law—more independent stores, more diverse selection, no discount battles on
shitty best-sellers, etc.—I’m a big fan. And I know that’s quixotic, since half of Congress and 90% of corporate salarymen would shit themselves at the very idea of impeding the so-call free market. Which is dumb and deserving of another rant, but I’ll refrain and keep it on the Swiss:
Swiss publishing professionals often compare the effects of the repeal of fixed book pricing to those of the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in Britain: price wars over bestsellers, deep discounts of up to 30% by big booksellers like Thalia and Orell Füssli. Andreas Grob, Managing Director of Buchzentrum, a large distributor and wholesaler owned collectively by Swiss bookstores, has witnessed online sellers benefit while physical stores have experienced “ever-increasing problems.”
In Germany, where fixed book price law is strong, book prices have actually fallen in comparison with other goods over the past decade. Swiss book prices, in contrast, have risen over the past four years. “Economic theories say that free markets produce lower prices, but interestingly in the case of books that’s not so,” commented Dani Landolf, director of The Swiss Publishers Association (SBVV).
While bestsellers get deep discounts, the majority of other books become more expensive to fund the price wars. Sabine Dörlemann, president of Swiss Independent Publishers (SWIPS), expressed frustration that books from small publishers with tight budgets were assigned higher prices, which reduces sales though the publisher sees none of that extra money.
I love everything about this article, especially this bit:
The decision affirms the idea that books are not just like any other consumer product; their diversity and availability is desirable and demands protection. To have a variety of books, a variety of publishers is necessary; a large number of independent bookstores willing to stock titles from small and large presses alike is necessary for such a variety of publishers to thrive; and a fixed price system is needed to protect those bookstores, publishers, and ultimately authors. Or so the reasoning goes. For SWIPS, in the end the decision means that “more money ends up with us,” said Dörlemann.
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.
As previously mentioned, this Frankfurt, I’m going to be doing a lot of writing for the Publishing Perspectives Show Daily. This is actually starting now (which is one of several reasons the posts are going to be light on Three Percent this week and next), and one of the features I’m contributing to is the “Hot Frankfurt Titles” list. So, if you’re going to be at Frankfurt and have a “hot title” you’d like to tell everyone else at Frankfurt about, please send me (chad.post at rochester.edu) a brief description and any additional info you have (if there’s a sample translation available, any prizes the book has won, etc.) along with a 300+ dpi photo and I’ll do my best to include your title . . . Thanks in advance!
OK, this is a sort of odd post, and only applies to some of you, but I’m going to fall back on my traditional “screw it, it’s Friday” excuse and just post this anyway . . .
As I’ve mentioned before, at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair I’m going to spend basically all of my time writing for the Publishing Perspectives Show Daily. I’m really excited about this—it’s fun to interview people, to find interesting things to write about, to spread the word about interesting publishing houses and projects, etc.
Well, to best prepare and make sure we don’t miss out on anything interesting, I’d like to enlist your help. If you a) have a story idea you think Publishing Perspectives would be interested in covering or b) if you have a book/author that you’re going to be pushing hard at the fair, please e-mail me at chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu. The sooner the better . . . And thanks in advance!
Today’s feature article at Publishing Perspectives is an interview with Rafi Mohammed about pricing, specifically about the “1% windfall” (increase prices by 1% make $$$$) and “dynamic pricing” for books. Here are a couple choice excerpts:
PP: Author Cory Doctorow has framed this debate as price elasticity versus price discrimination, with Amazon believing that lower prices create more demand and publishers holding on to the belief that differing products released over time maximizes profit. Does this properly characterize the actions these companies have taken?
RM: I disagree with Cory on both accounts. On the Amazon side, price elasticity is about choosing the right price to make the most profit. Amazon has been choosing to sell e-books at a loss for some time. That decision indicates to me a different strategy. Could it be about the profitability of selling devices and taking a loss on the content? Maybe it is about capturing market share while the e-reader market in its infancy and creating lock-in with consumers?
On the publisher side, price discrimination doesn’t exactly describe the choices they are making either. Price discrimination implies that prices fall over time as perceived value of the product falls and the choice by several publishers to create a second window for e-books, their most profitable product, after the release of the hardcover, doesn’t match up. There are again other motives at play. Windowing e-books protects hardcover sales and the retailers that depend on them.
PP: Digital distribution creates a variety of new opportunities for how products can be priced including the price of free. What sort of experimentation should publishers be considering?
Dynamic pricing is the biggest opportunity for publishers. For example, if a new release catches on, the price of the book should be increased. I am not suggesting doubling the price, but adding one or two dollars to the retail price creates a huge impact on the profitability of that title. Hospitality managers change the price of the rooms at their hotels constants to match current demand. Publishers should consider the same.
Yeah, I’ll bet that would be a breeze. And that readers would totally love watching prices fluctuate based on how many times they see someone reading a book on the subway. You could join a book club and pay $2 more for a title than you would’ve had said book club never existed. Dynamic pricing would be a lot simpler with ebooks, especially those sold directly from publisher to reader, but I get a headache just thinking about implementing something like this with print books, bookstores, and wholesalers with constantly fluctuating prices. And looking to the hospitality industry as an example of what publishers should do made me vomit a little bit in my mouth. Next thing you know we’ll all be aping the airline industry and charging extra for the cover or page numbers or some such thing . . .
So, what can be done to accomplish the change in priority from “How do we pay for translated fiction?” into “How do we get more people interested in these books?”
First off, there’s the “publishers are sheep” problem. I once saw Scott Moyer (formerly of Random House and Penguin, currently working at the Andrew Wylie Agency) on a panel talking about Shadow of the Wind and how the success of that particular book caused editors to seek out the next Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Is this really what we need? Not that Zafon’s not talented, not that I don’t think people should read his books or books like them, but I’m pretty sure that publishers love imitation more than their audience does. Medium-hopping for a second, how many Lost-esque shows came out after the immediate success of Lost? I think about a billion, none of which are still on the air. Readers like similarities, not necessarily repetition. Publishers like sure things. There may be a problem here.
Not that it’s easy for anyone — psychic or not — to identify what’s going to take off. One of the reasons imitations don’t work is because audiences tend to be fickle. Trends are trends because they aren’t permanent.
But what might be worse from a culture standpoint is if readers do come to believe that all translations are equal.
Let me digress for a minute: I’m not going to go into it too much here, but I do want to say that one of my beliefs is that publishing — or media creation of any sort—is a special sort of industry. Sure, it’s an industry based on profit and loss and catering to needs and purchasing power, but it also has a larger import. What’s published affects culture as a whole. Ideas circulate thanks to books. Visions of the world at large are crafted by what we read and see. So treating publishing as solely a money game is missing the fact that most of this are in this because we know that books have power and that we are hopefully contributing to the greater good via our jobs. Or most probably. Maybe it’s just me and I’m deluded. But still.
A while ago, I came up with the idea of the “one country, one author” problem. For example: people found out about Jose Saramago, fell in love with Blindness, and didn’t bother reading other Portuguese writers because they had already read the best. And Garcia Marquez equals Colombia. Tolstoy was Russia.
OK, that last one is debatable and maybe the whole idea is a pile of crap, but let me tell a little story about what happened to us recently. Open Letter runs a subscription series whereby for $100 you receive 10 books over the next year. After we were featured in the New York Times, hundreds, literally hundreds of people signed up, not really knowing what kind of books they’d be getting, except that they were “translations.” One of the first books sent out to these new subscribers was Ilf & Petrov’s Russian classic The Golden Calf. This book is hysterical, readable, great fun. A couple weeks after sending it out, however, I received a letter in the mail from a new subscriber asking for a full refund, since “nothing I have ever read could prepare me for this. I don’t read a lot of translations and this was nothing like The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”
The Non-Beach Reading Audience
Running parallel to the beach readers is a smaller, yet very devoted, group of literary readers. These are people who get geeked about the Man Booker Longlist. These are people who made David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a New York Times bestseller. Who made Roberto Bolano’s 2666 a bestseller. Who made Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses a bestseller. These are the people who might read Steig Larsson, but may well crave Mathias Enard’s aforementioned Zone. These are readers who have always been around, always been on the fringes supporting the artists. This group is not half a tenth as large as publishers would like, but these are the readers who help mold literary tastes for years well into the future. And for the first time in history, it’s suddenly become much easier to reach and interact with these readers.
Everyone knows we live in a culture of mass markets. At any point in time it seems like everyone is reading the same twelve books. And this is comforting to publishers. If you can produce one of the twelve, you can capitalize on that shit. It’ll be stacked at Barnes & Noble. People will be reading it on the subway. Sure, there are those other readers who aren’t interested in these types of books, but man, they’re much harder to identify and reach. This is true, but for the readership for literature in translation to take off, I think you have to.
This is why publishing houses with strong brands — Archipelago, Europa Editions, New Directions — do better with literature than some of the major commercial houses. They may not have the distributing power, but they draw this other group of readers to them. In some ways, they’re in a better position to successfully publish a “non-commercial” translation than a Random House.
Multiple Approaches to the Readership Issue
I’m not trying to say independents are better publishers, or that we shouldn’t try and publish translated “beach books” in order to increase the audience for literature in translation — just that we need to take a multi-pronged approach to this situation.
On one hand, you have the presses identifying and marketing the hell out of translations that have the potential to become very, very popular. This is what a number of the major houses are really good at. And it makes them money and it helps them believe that there is an audience for these “foreign” books, and it leads them to publish more of these titles. All very positive.
And on the other side, you have the small presses who tend to focus on the books with a more diffuse readership. Books that “aren’t for everyone.” There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people like to rail against the culture-at-large for not appreciating this particular aesthetic. Which is kind of stupid. There is an audience for these books — it’s just up to the publisher (and any other organizations who’d like to help with money, ideas, or manpower) to find creative new ways to connect with these readers. We live in a digital age where social networks rule our time online and we’re more tuned in to one another’s lives than we’ve ever been. Whereas in the past there was that small group of readers who bonded over an obscure Grove publication, nowadays this same handful of readers can broadcast their love to similar groups across the country. And these numbers add up, and the influence these readers have can be monumental.
If different publishers, funders, reader-oriented organizations approach sides of this readership coin in different, yet equally innovative ways, (and yes, I realize that it’s sometimes really hard to distinguish what’s mass and what’s cult), some real change might come about. Hell, maybe a highly literary translation will be the beach book of summer 2011.
Because of how this was broken up over two weeks, and because I’m still recovering from my vacation in Ohio with my family, I thought I’d rerun the editorial I wrote for Publishing Perspectives. I’ll stick with the two-part format, since that pretty much makes sense, so here’s Part One:
“What we need is a great translated beach book. Something that will appeal to tons of people and convince them that it’s safe to come in the water,” a friend said to me.
“This is true . . .” I instantly imagined someone sitting in the sand reading Zone, the 517-page, one-sentence novel that Open Letter is publishing this fall, and which has become my summer read. In my mind, this imaginary reader looked frustrated, disgusted, like she’d never read a French book again. No, like she’d never travel to France again.
OK, so anyone with a little common sense knows that our books aren’t really of the “beach read” variety. But as someone who endlessly advocates for the publication, promotion, and appreciation of international literature, this statement my friend made really got me thinking: maybe all of us promoting translations need to get more commercial. More in touch with the common reader. Maybe everyone’s right, the translations that get published here are too erudite, too specialized to survive in the marketplace.
Swiping a line from one of our board members, I’m not sure I’d be able to identify a bestseller if the damn thing sold a million copies all over my head, but there is something to the argument that a breakthrough book could help change the marketplace for literature in translation. If only it were that easy . . .
Before getting too far into theories of audience development, let’s back up a bit. I’m willing to bet everyone subscribing to Publishing Perspectives knows full well that the situation regarding literature in translation in the United States is a little bit fucked. We export the hell out of our authors, watching them get translated into dozens of languages, but we rarely publish a novel from Sweden much less Croatia, Bulgaria, Paraguay.
And we all know the two most common reasons cited for this literary isolationism: translations cost too much and don’t sell very well.
Correcting Supply vs. Creating Demand
Believing in those two premises — and these premises may well be bullshit, but let’s let that slide for another day’s editorial — has led to a large focus on correcting the supply-side of the situation, especially through translation grants designed to offset part of the publisher’s production costs. From a publisher’s perspective (no pun intended), it’s much easier to look at your balance sheet and find ways of offsetting your costs that are immediate, guaranteed, and relatively easy to acquire. And in the greater scheme of things, filling out a two-page application form and sending along a sample translation is much quicker and more reliable than trying to make a book’s budget work by identifying readers and increasing sales.
In addition to translation costs, occasionally a foreign government will also subsidize rights payments, and in very rare instances will help pay part of the printing bill. These grants are wonderful, are necessary, are the reason that certain presses stay alive. And the fact that most of these monies go to translators — one of the most woefully underpaid links in the translation publishing chain — is fantastic.
But except under very specific conditions — a book tour, a particular event — these monies are never directed at readers. Or to be more precise, at the idea of building and creating a readership.
It could be argued, or rather, I would personally argue, that by changing the demand-side of the international literature equation, the entire translation balance could be upended. If publishers believed the readership for literature in translation was equal to that for any other book they might publish, their arguments against doing these books start to fall apart. At least a little bit. And maybe more translations get published, and sell better than expected, resulting in more translations, and for once we have a positive feedback loop in relation to foreign literature.
So if the end goal is to increase readership instead of focusing on how to pay production costs, the question becomes, “how do we get people interested in these books?” And we’re back at the beach read possibility . . .
I’ve heard a number of people promote the idea that if a few translations really “took off” then we’d see an overall increase in the number of international titles making their way to our shores. Which is absolutely true. What’s the over/under on Scandinavian crime novels coming out next year that are the “next Steig Larsson”? Fifty? One hundred? I’m sure every publishing house in Manhattan would overpay by a million dollars to find the next “Girl with a something something.”
Also absolutely true that readers of Larsson will be much more willing to give another Nordic thriller a try. It’s not like international crime is an unpopular genre, but it’s pretty likely that baseline sales for the genre will spike over the next couple years.
There’s no denying that the beach read argument has validity in terms of generating a larger audience and change the minds of some publishing people. It most definitely does. And that’s great. But I think it’s just part of the picture and carries with it a few cautions and needs to be supplemented with other approaches. More on that in Part Two . . .
Here’s the opening:
So, what can be done to accomplish the change in priority from “How do we pay for translated fiction?” into “How do we get more people interested in these books?”
First off, there’s the “publishers are sheep” problem. I once saw Scott Moyer (formerly of Random House and Penguin, currently working at the Andrew Wylie Agency) on a panel talking about Shadow of the Wind and how the success of that particular book caused editors to seek out the next Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Is this really what we need? Not that Zafon’s not talented, not that I don’t think people should read his books or books like them, but I’m pretty sure that publishers love imitation more than their audience does. Medium-hopping for a second, how many Lost-esque shows came out after the immediate success of Lost? I think about a billion, none of which are still on the air. Readers like similarities, not necessarily repetition. Publishers like sure things. There may be a problem here.
As noted on Monday, I’ve been guest editing Publishing Perspectives this week, mainly writing a daily post for the blog and working on the two-part editorial that’s running today and Monday.
Taking off from a conversation I had late last week, I tried to write about ways to build audiences for literature in translation, mainly focusing on the idea of a “beach read” book that appeals to the masses, and the way non-beach read publishers could reach a different set of readers.
Of the two parts, I think today’s the funnier one, and Monday’s has more opinions and ideas . . . Anyway, you can check out the first part by clicking here.
Today’s Publishing Perspectives article on the forthcoming Argentine ebook market is really interesting. Octavio Kulesz from Teseo delves into some of the difficulties facing Argentine publishers regarding the creation and sale of ebooks, making a case for Argentinean entrepreneurs to come along and save the day.
Therefore, the foundations for the resurrection of the industry have been laid: the users have started to demand online content and the public sector has shown it is ready to meet the industry’s need for new skills and infrastructure. However, as I have tried to point out, traditional publishing houses probably won’t leave their current lethargy — for they cannot do it without jeopardizing the very grounds of their business, which still revolves around paper copies consigned in physical bookstores.
In my opinion, given that the migration of the industry won’t come from analog publishers suddenly becoming digital but from new players joining the game, what we need now is a new generation of digital publishers entering the scene and taking over. This will require a big effort from that cohort, but the attempt will be worth making, since what is at stake is no less than the vitality of the forthcoming Argentinean (e)book industry.
I’ve been fascinated with Argentina since reading Hopscotch fifteen million (or so) years ago, and have been fascinated with the Argentine publishing scene since visiting Buenos Aires on an editor’s trip a few years back. Argentina happens to be the Guest of Honor at Frankfurt this year, and I’m planning on writing a number of stories about the Argentine publishing scene for the Publishing Perspectives Show Daily.
Anyway, you can check out Octavio’s complete article by clicking here.
This week I’m technically guest editing over at Publishing Perspectives, so we may not be posting quite as many things here. (Or at least not as many serious articles.)
Ed Nawotka—the regular editor of Publishing Perspectives—put together the majority of pieces to run this week, including the one today about Jennifer Belle paying actresses to read her book in public. (Essentially she created her own BzzAgent army.)
I did commission the piece by Octavio Kulesz that will run tomorrow on the Argentine ebook market, and will be writing Friday’s editorial . . . Also, I’ll be putting up a couple posts over there every day, so, well, you should check them out. And subscribe to Publishing Perspectives—it’s one of the very best daily newsletters/websites dedicated to the business of publishing. It has a decisively international focus and all of the regular features are brilliant.
The always interesting Publishing Perspectives has a great double-sided post today about publisher branding, with Erin Cox advocating for publishers to spend more time & money on this, and Sarah Russo arguing about why publishers shouldn’t “brand the brand.”
It’s not hard to figure out where I stand on this argument, but I’ll try and objectively summarize both sides, starting with Erin:
In the last decade or more, the trend in trade publishing has been to focus on branding an author instead of an imprint. There are some notable exceptions, but, for the most part, publishers’ branding rarely extends beyond the colophon on the spine and printed at the bottom of an advertisement.
Ask any publisher, and they will say that the average reader does not relate to a publisher, they relate to an author. This may be true, but is this merely because publishers are not doing enough to brand themselves and their types of books? Is there more that could be done that would make imprints stand out, thus attracting more readers, and allowing savvy publishers to be more competitive in an already-saturated marketplace?
Before I begin, I would like to define the term “branding” as a method by which a publisher or a publishing imprint defines who they are and the types of books they publish in order to establish a relationship with the reader.
Anything that promotes a closer connection between readers and publishers is a good idea in my book. But going on, here are a couple examples Erin includes on how to build a brand:
Sure, there is a colophon on the side of the book, but why not create a standard package that helps to assert that this is a book published by [INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]. It could be expanding the colophon to take over the whole spine (which might also inspire bibliophiles to want the whole collection for their library) or be something more dramatic like Library of America’s uniform edition or the consistently colored spines of the aforementioned New York Review of Books editions.
And here’s a slightly more embarrassing/meta suggestion:
Put a Face to the House
Go forth and talk to the readers. Train a few editors, publicists, marketing people to be spokespeople for the company. Get them out there doing interviews, host a book club in a local store, write a blog about the books they publish, get them on panels at festivals and fairs beyond the traditional writing festivals. That’s how magazines help to brand themselves, why not book publishers? Chad Post, Publishing Perspectives contributor and Publisher at Open Letter, is almost more famous than his imprint. He was recently on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer” and is regularly on local television in Rochester.
I agree with all of this—with the caveat that this makes most sense when the publishing house (or imprint) has a clear focus. It’s hard to brand a general house that’s appealing to one group of people with its cookbooks, another with its poetry, etc. Not that it’s impossible—I trust in Knopf for basically anything in any category (although recent conversations about Dragon Pizzeria have shaken my faith a bit)—just that it’s easier if you are a certain definable thing.
Flipping sides, here’s a few quotes from Sarah Russo about why publishers shouldn’t brand themselves:
I’m of the belief that publisher or imprint specific branding would be not only fairly fruitless for trade publishers but also hugely time consuming and a financial drain. Branding, specifically online branding, works in niches that allow you to reach specific communities. A branding campaign needs a defined target or it is destined to fail. [. . .]
The abundance of publisher Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter feeds suggest that publishers want to go direct to consumers, but many are not reaching that audience at all. Some market research on the bigger imprints’ Facebook pages would likely report that their “fans” are already in the industry (or want to be). Pantheon has 724 followers this morning. Sixty-five of those followers are publishing people that I know personally. That’s a hefty percentage. And that’s a lot of effort expended to get those 700 fans, a minimum of 10% of which are in the industry.
That’s the best paragraph in here, especially considering that Open Letter has almost 1,500 FB fans . . . It actually sort of proves my point that you have to be somewhat specific to be able to build a brand.
So we need to reach a new group of readers. I don’t think our reading public is spending hours watching TV each day. However, targeted TV ads could work in the right markets using the right TV programs. Slate tested an interesting TV ad experiment recently. It’s not out of the question, but it can be strategically limiting financially and production-wise. (I’m not intentionally leaving out radio but NPR ads are frequently used by publishers and are nothing new.)
I think I’m done quoting from her. Sure, this is all fine and good, but none of her suggestions address the fact that the old model is creaky and not very adaptable to an age of connectivity. I agree that it would be a huge waste of money for Random House to try and rebrand itself—that’s just plain silly. But entertaining the idea of TV ads strikes me as being as misguiding as launching a billboard campaign. (Does anyone actually watch live TV anymore anyway?)
Sorry—I thought I could write a balanced post about this, but I can’t. Even if general readers don’t necessarily pay attention to who is publishing which books, a savvy, strategic branding campaign can help build a loyal audience in a relatively cheap and easy way. And who doesn’t want a core group of fans buying and talking about their books?
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.”
As was announced yesterday, Kirkus Reviews (and Editor & Publisher) is shutting down. Which kind of has people a bit worked up. It’s not every day that you see such a palpable sign of your industry’s troubles as when one of the few pure trade publications just ceases to be.
When I was at Dalkey, a Kirkus review was a time to bitch and moan about how reviewers never understood our books, and how irritating the phrase “not for everyone” really can be. Some of the meanest reviews I’ve read in my life came from Kirkus. Their anonymous reviewers could pile on a book like no one else. (Although miraculously, for whatever reason, they absolutely love Open Letter titles, giving us our first starred review, taking a look at all of our titles from the get go, etc.)
Along with Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, Kirkus has served as one of the most influential advance reviews around. Jerome Kramer does a great job summing this up and looking at some of the implications in his editorial for Publishing Perspectives:
I know the significant value Kirkus has in its brand equity, the decades of accumulated goodwill, or at least begrudging respect, for its often-accurate, frequently-prescient and sometimes perversely mean-spirited reviews. For decades, those reviews have been a critical piece of the tinder that publicists use to light a fire under a book—the real flame coming from the coverage in People or The New York Times or Oprah. The industry religion has held that those places, where coverage can actually move a lot of copies, look to the advance sources for guidance. [. . .]
So it may well be that the magazine’s end is entirely an unfortunate outcome of media company bean-counting. The intriguing question, though, is whether the industry still needs advance reviews the way it used to. Like it or not, they’re worth less every day in a world where everyone’s sister’s friend has a handle or a blog like Readermommy or Bookluvah (I tried to make up names that don’t exist, really I did, but it’s near impossible—sorry Readermommy and Bookluvah). The dynamics that used to drive book promotion and marketing have been radically altered over the past five to ten years, with the explosion of online equivalents to hand-selling and friend recommendations so incredibly prevalent all over the web. The decimation of conventional review outlets has been well documented and thoroughly lamented. But it may well be that the takeover of the real-estate formerly occupied by thoroughly-informed, well-read, smarty-pants professional reviewers by user-generated content and literary bloggers is inexorable.
The reality is that today’s generation of book marketers and publicists will figure out how to move ahead, with or without advance reviews, and the staffers at People and The New York Times and Oprah will have no shortage of sources coaxing them to this or that title. And yet, there remains the distinct sense that something will be missing, that some gap will be opened up. And what that means, of course, is an opportunity for someone to fill it. Good luck, someone.
Just wanted to mention that I’m going to be writing a number of articles for the Publishing Perspectives Show Daily at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Actually, I’m working on a bunch of them right now . . . But that said, if you have an interesting announcement/story/event related to the FBF, please feel free to contact me at chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu. We’re still looking for good story ideas . . .
First off, I can’t believe that I managed to leave Hallgrimur Helgason off of yesterday’s list of contemporary Icelandic authors. His novel 101 Reykjavik was published a few years back by Scribner, and was also made into a movie. The book of his that always sounded most interested to me though is The Author of Iceland. Here’s a description Daniel Mandel once sent me:
The Author of Iceland, winner of the 2001 Icelandic Literature Prize, is about a writer named Einar Grimsson, who is a character based on the great Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness. The novel begins with Einar in old age, who one day wakes up to discover he is now living in one of his own novels. Grimsson slowly becomes younger as the novel progresses, and his life is explored in reverse—falling in love, embracing Stalinist ideologies, and trying to make good on the mistakes of his own life. But Grimsson can’t change fate, and soon realizes that he is trapped in his own novel, and fiction is no different than life.
Rounding out my week of posts about Iceland, here’s the article I wrote for Publishing Perspectives on the Festival and the recent interest in Icelandic fiction:
Although Iceland has had some very notable cultural exports — Halldor Laxness, Bjork, and Sigur Ros among them — last fall’s spectacular economic collapse probably brought more attention to this island nation than any other event in its modern history. One year later, the financial sector may still be recovering, but its literary scene is thriving.
“Our goal is to get people to have a crush on Iceland and Icelandic literature.” That’s how Agla Magnúsdóttir — the director of the Icelandic Literature Fund, and one of the organizers of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival — described last week’s series of readings, interviews, and other cultural events.
Dozens of writers from both Iceland and abroad participated in the festival, including Gyrðir Elíasson, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Steinar Bragi, Thor Vilhjálmsson (all from Iceland), Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), Michael Ondaatje (Canada), David Sedaris (U.S.), Jesse Ball (U.S.), Henning Ahrens (Germany), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya).
The events were very well attended, which shouldn’t be that surprising, considering there’s been increased sales of Icelandic fiction in the domestic market. Most publishers figured that in a time of great economic upheaval, self-help and nonfiction would dominate the best-seller lists, but instead, it seems that most Icelandic readers are looking for an escape. According to Úa Matthíasdóttir of Forlagið-Iceland’s largest trade publisher — there was a surge in sales for fiction last Christmas that went against conventional wisdom.
Total broken record moment, but if you haven’t subscribed to the Publishing Perspectives daily newsletter, you definitely should. The pieces are always interesting, and very well done.
Anyway, a couple months back I was planning on writing a long piece on Turkish fiction coming out this year, including Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, Orhan Kemel’s The Idle Years, and two Selçuk Altun titles, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and Many and Many a Year Ago. I had a hard time getting into Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, then got distracted with other things, and then and then it’s suddenly the middle of August . . .
But today’s piece in Publishing Perspectives has remotivated me (is this even a word?) to take a look at the latest Altun book.
As Ed Nawotka writes in his article, Altun’s an interesting guy. He’s served on the board of YKY (Yapi Kredi Publications), one of Turkey’s largest publishers, and was was chairman of Yapi Kredi Bank until he retired at the age of 54 to become a writer. He paid to have his first book translated into English, working under the (mostly correct) assumption that once it was in English there was a much better chance of getting it translated into a bunch of other languages.
That’s all cool (and noble—his book earnings fund three scholarships!), but it’s the book itself that sounds intriguing to me:
Many and Many a Year Ago concerns a young Turkish fighter pilot who, after crashing his F-16, is set up with a generous stipend and an apartment in Istanbul’s Taksim district. In return, the convalescing daredevil must undertake a series of mysterious missions following in the footsteps of American writer Edgar Allen Poe, taking him from Istanbul to Buenos Aires, and beyond. Eventually, he arrives at Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore.
“It is part literature and part travel book, a little bit of Paul Auster and Bruce Chatwin,” says Altun. “It is a Sheherezade-like reading experience in that there’s a chain of eight stories within stories. Poe was himself a very rich character, though financially poor. He was polyglot, he had dreams, and if he had money he would have lived his life in a rich way, so what I tried to do was imagine what the life of a post-modern, well-off Poe would have been like.”
I’ve got a stack of “to be reviewed” titles going already, but this is moving quickly toward the top . . . Speaking of which, we’re always looking for more book reviewers, so if anyone’s interested, e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.
Today’s Publishing Perspectives piece is a great editorial by editor Ed Nawotka on e-books, specifically in relation to kids books:
My daughter loves to read. “Book, ook, ook,” she’ll say, trying to form the right word that will get my attention to plop onto a beanbag chair, pull her into my lap, and read to her from her growing library of small, square board books. There are some A-Z books, some “colors” and “shapes” books, some Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. But most often, what she wants is something by Sandra Boynton — Barnyard Dance, Horns to Toes — books that are age-appropriate. These are books full of sing-songy prose and hippos, elephants, and dogs doing things like bathing, brushing their teeth, and pulling on pajamas — all the things she’s now learning to do herself. My daughter loves these books so much that she literally tries to climb inside them. Now that’s commitment.
But what I fear, as things go digital, is that a lot of the visceral love of reading will be lost. Not the romance of paper — although, there is that — but that physical connection one gets with books from an early age. That climbing into the book my daughter is doing, the way she can’t turn the page fast enough when she’s excited, the way she flips it aside when she’s done.
Of course, there will always be children’s board books. But the question is, as more and more parents spend more and more time with e-book readers and less with physical books, what kind of example does that serve? Don’t we spend enough time in front of screens as it is?
I know my daughter responds to books because, in part, as an infant she had to crawl through what must have looked like looming towers of review copies, threatening at a moment’s notice to topple over on her. She was both curious about and wary of these piles. Would the same have happened if all my galleys came via e-mail to my Kindle?
And over toward the other end of the spectrum, Steven Levingston laments Polymer Vision’s financial troubles, and the fact that this might kill the Readius e-reader they were developing. Collective shrug—if it ain’t Apple’s tablet, it ain’t worth a damn. Still, this did sound (and look) sort of cool:
In prototype, it is a pocket-sized gadget about the size of a pack of cigarettes. What sets it apart is the flexible, flip-out screen. Open the thing up, and you unfold a 5-inch display. Finish reading and fold it up again, clip it closed and stuff it back in your pocket. The company claimed it had tested the screen’s flexibility more than 25,000 times and discovered no degradation in readability.
Like the Kindle, the Readius would have a high-speed wireless connection for downloading books on the run. The screen uses high-resolution, low power E-Ink.
The device also was designed as a mobile phone.
If you’re interested, there’s a video at the bottom of the article demonstrating the flexibility—and cigarette-pack qualities—of the Readius.
And if you’re a venture capitalist looking to bail out Polymer Vision (is this an oxymoron?), I suggest you give all your money to Open Letter through the link below.
Today’s Publishing Perspectives (which everyone in the universe should subscribe to), has a great piece by Lance Fensterman, the man behind BookExpo America, the New York Comic Con, the New York Anime Fest, and the soon-to-be-launched Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. The interaction (or lack thereof) between publishers and readers is a long-running hobbyhorse of mine, so this bit is of particular interest to me:
But for all this nuance, what is the real distinction between all these shows? Since I work so closely with both the business to business model and the con (or consumer/public) model, my observation is that the cons (I use this term generically to define SDCC, NYCC, C2E2) drive media coverage, are epicenters of energy, and allow an incredibly porous connection between creator and consumer. Trade events (exclusively business to business environments) lack this porous connection between creator and consumer. The con model is based on an outside-in style of connection and promotion; the creators are there to hear from the consumers, to influence the consumers, and to interact with the consumers. The model at trade events such as BEA is much more inside-out. Publishers are there to influence emissaries or tastemakers who are then expected to take the message to the book buying public based on what they saw and who they met.
The notable increase of bloggers at BEA and the quality and quantity of information that is conveyed through the Internet is certainly changing the paradigm at BEA as the “public” is becoming increasingly involved through a Web based universe. But this introduction of a public component is a long way from what we see at SDCC or NYCC. I am not suggesting that there is a perfect model for any single event. Different shows serve different purposes. But just as NYCC needs to think about building a better business to business environment to set it apart, so too does BEA need to think about creating more direct communication with the public. We live in a world where everyone feels empowered to have a “say” and to wield some influence. Since this is the case, I think it is appropriate for both NYCC and BEA to ask the question: just who is an industry insider anymore?
Today’s Publishing Perspectives includes an editorial that I wrote about the “state of translations” in America attempting to explain the dip in the number of translations coming out this year:
For years, people have speculated that the number of literary works in translation being published in the United States has been in decline. I say “speculate,” because the publishing industry — which is notoriously poor at market research and data gathering — didn’t really keep track of how many translations were being published here, instead relying almost entirely on wistful memories of days gone by and other equally questionable anecdotal evidence. Two years ago, I started a “Translation Database” at the Web site ThreePercent.com to finally quantify what’s going on with literature in translation, and although data for 2009 is still coming in, it looks like there will be a bit of a drop off this year — of as much as 10%.
On one hand, this is pretty easy to explain: it’s because of the economy. But in my opinion, we’re talking about two different economic problems causing this. Book sales are down, which really hurts commercial presses and makes them less likely to publish “expensive” books like translations. And at the same time, nonprofits and university presses (which publish the bulk of translations already), are struggling to find funding, what with foundations losing a lot of their endowments in the stock market, and individual donors struggling as well.
It’s a crappy situation, and unless a few rainmakers appear, 2010 will most likely see a further drop in translations being published in America . . . Just a little happy note to kick off your Friday . . .
Yesterday’s Publishing Perspectives (which you should really subscribe to if you haven’t already—it is that consistently good) had an interesting piece about a digital distribution company for ebooks that is being set up by Planeta, Random House Mondadori, and Santillana (the three biggest publishers in Spain). Here’s more from Emily Williams’s article:
This initiative will go hand in hand with a major marketing effort starting with a splashy launch of e-books and e-readers this holiday season through at least one major retailer. They have set a goal of having every frontlist title able to be published simultaneously in both print and ebook form by mid 2011. [. . .]
In negotiations with the Association of Spanish Literary Agencies (ADAL), the publishers have agreed to price ebooks at 80% of a printed books cover price, with a standard 25% royalty rate. Booksellers will be offered a maximum discount of 50%. The two groups hope to sign an agreement soon.
Although the Carmen Balcells Agency isn’t too keen on this 25% royalty rate (they want 40%!! Not sure if they realize yet that although they have a stellar list of authors, this means absolutely nothing if there are no publishers in business to publish said authors’ books. Agents!), this seems pretty civilized and like the Big Three actually thought this all through.
What’s really interesting to me is this 80% of printed retail. In a completely free market, I still believe that supply and demand will bring the amount readers are willing to pay much closer to $9.99 than 80% of a typical hardcover. But, like in a number of countries, Spain operates under a fixed price law that determines what price books are sold to the public. In other words, there is no discounting, which greatly changes the retailing landscape.
This “long tail effect” has not yet had much of an impact on the Spanish book market, which has not embraced online book retailing to the same extent as other countries. Spain reliance on fixed book prices has kept away powerful online discounters like Amazon.com. This gives publishers much more leeway to experiment with pricing on their own terms, and will also determine how Spanish ebooks will be sold internationally. In most cases Spanish publishers control the worldwide Spanish language rights to the books they publish (both native and translated authors) and will be able to sell their ebooks to consumers anywhere in the world. However, because of price controls those purchases will have to go through Spanish booksellers or other sites that respect the terms set by the Spanish market. This would likely exclude Amazon, who will not only be unable to sell books in Spain, but will not have access to the vast majority of Spanish language titles for either the US or Latin American market.
Anne-Solange Noble of Gallimard is a huge proponent of this law, and was asking me at BEA about why we don’t do this in America. (Short answer: propose something anti-free market like this and you’ll be tarred and feathered as a Communist.) Her argument is that the fixed price law has helped keep independent bookstores in business, and allowed publishers to continue to publish poetry and other sorts of books that typically don’t sell all that well.
Personally, I am in favor of something like this, because it would level the playing field in a potentially interesting way. Part of the problem with the book industry is the fact that every outlet has raced toward the middle, and the same books are being promoted at all the stores at the same time. With certain exceptions (the City Lights, McNally Jacksons, Seminary Co-ops of the world), most stores strive to be the same as every other store. You can get the same book anywhere—even online. So for your average reader, price becomes the only distinguishing factor between B&N, Amazon, or Idlewild. If the ability to set your own prices were removed, it would be a lot easier (or tougher, depending on your point of view) to highlight the value-added components of these outlets.
Putting all that rhetoric aside for a second, the other reason I think this is such an important story is the line about Spanish publishers being able to sell their books all over the world. When I was in Buenos Aires last year, this “Spanish world rights” issue really caught my attention. Since the largest Spanish language publishers are in Spain, and since they tend to buy world Spanish rights to the books they publish, a reader in Argentina has to pay an exorbitant amount for a book imported from Spain. Ebooks solve this dilemma, eliminating all of the shipping costs, etc., and, if the device is cheap/good enough, could revolutionize the Spanish market around the world.
From today’s Publishing Perspectives piece by Moser about the origins of his project (Why This World) and all that he went through to research this elusive figure:
Maybe because the project began with such élan, I found myself undaunted by the many obstacles that were thrown at me. Neither the cuisine of rural Ukraine, where Clarice, the daughter of Jewish refugees was born; nor the rush-hour traffic in Recife, where she grew up; nor the zealous guardians of the archives of Bern, where she lived as the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, could dissuade me from my task.
I pored over thousands of pages of master’s theses from obscure universities; I learned Yiddish in order to read family memoirs. Time and again, I tugged out an abusively overused credit card: to buy books, including, ultimately, more copies of her rare first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, than are in all the libraries in the United States put together; to chase down some elusive materials in a suburban house in Manchester; to pay a visit to a man in Paris who may or may not have been her lover (he wasn’t); to put myself on yet another fourteen-hour economy flight in order to spend long days speaking to often-reluctant witnesses.
I got called an anti-Semite and an Ugly American; I also got to spend afternoons with loving Jewish grandmothers who made me tea and sent their maids to my hotel with homemade soup when I came down with the flu. I got to eat pizza with a woman in Kiev who had just returned from Chernobyl and who casually laid her Geiger counter on the table as she was digging through her purse in search of her cigarettes.
So a couple weeks ago I caused a little bit of a stir by announcing via an article in Publishing Perspectives that we were abandoning the paper-over-board format in favor of all paperbacks. We got a lot of responses about this, ranging from people who were disappointed and love paper-over-board, to booksellers explaining that yes, they were shelving these in the hardcover section which has a very different market.
In the end, I think we did the right thing, but one of the reasons we were resisting this change is because we were afraid that reviewers wouldn’t take the paperbacks as seriously as the hardcover, p-o-b books.
But everyone assured us that those days are over . . . that paperback originals are acceptable to everyone, etc., etc.
We send each new catalog to hundreds of reviewers, bloggers, booksellers, and usually include a letter offering free reading copies if there are any titles you might like to review. So today we received this response from The Post and Courier in South Carolina:
“Thanks, Chad, but we do not review softcover books.”
My first article for Publishing Perspectives went live this morning and is all about the advantages (and disadvantages) of the paper-over-board format.
I have a visceral hatred for dust jackets – I strip them off, I crinkle them, I lose them. So in 2007, when in the process of launching Open Letter (a new publishing house at the University of Rochester dedicated to international literature), we had to decide whether we wanted to do our books as paperbacks, traditional hardcovers, or some third, more unique design, like “paper-over-board.”
Basically, paper-over-board books are hardcovers without a dust jacket. But not those musty, dowdy books you might find in an abandoned corner of a library . . . Printing technologies have come a long way, and now paper-over-board books can be as vibrant and attractive as any paperback, and printed in the same trade size as well.
This format is pretty common among European presses: Proa Editions in Barcelona produces a gorgeous line of paper-over-board books, as does Wydawnictwo W.A.B. in Warsaw, another Polish publisher, Swiat Ksiazki, and Karolinum Press in Prague (which also uses some of the most buttery paper I’ve ever stroked).
It’s not very common in the United States though. Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books are paper-over-board, and for adult fiction, HarperCollins USA published both Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth and Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain as paper-over-board titles, but those are the rare exceptions. (One independent bookseller who’s a big fan of this format showed a copy of one of Open Letter’s books to sales rep from a major distributor, who then replied, “Well, it looks pretty European” in a way that was probably pejorative.)
Marketing was the primary motivating factor in our decision making process. Our paper-over-board books would definitely stand out in the bookstore and would be very classy (or so we thought). And we also thought (although as you’ll see below this gets a bit complicated) that readers would appreciate being able to get a nice looking, durable hardcover at a very reasonable price.
Unfortunately, as is explained at the end of the piece, this format can be a bit baffling to customers and bookstores alike, falling in between the traditional hardcover market and paperback buyers. And since our mission really is to reach as many readers as possible with our books—and since we think we’ll be able to reach more with paperbacks—we’ve decided to do all paperbacks for the next season. This isn’t saying that we won’t go back to paper-over-board at some point (man, I really do love that format), but for the sake of our authors, we’re at least going to try this out.
It doesn’t officially launch until June 1st, but Publishing Perspectives the new daily newsletter from the Frankfurt Book Fair, and run by Ed Nawotka and Hannah Johnson is off to a pretty solid start. It’s kind of a “literary VeryShortList,” featuring one interesting, well-developed story each day and some additional bonus information online.
The first week included a piece about Eva Gabrielsson, Stieg Larsson’s long-time partner, who, thanks to Swedish inheritance laws, doesn’t get a dime (er, krona) from Larsson’s sales. (She is writing a book about her experiences though.)
I can hardly be objective about reviewing this—I’m good friends with both Hannah and Ed, and really like their sensibilities—but I honestly believe that this is a perfect addition to the existing newsletters (like PW Daily, Shelf Awareness, Publishers Lunch) and publishing news sites (like GalleyCat, Literary Saloon) that are out there. It’s a fantastic approach—I’ve written this elsewhere, but one-item newsletters are the thing right now—and provides a great, um, perspective on the publishing industry.
This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are. . .
The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers,. . .
The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve. . .
Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and. . .
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can. . .
When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I. . .