Bestselling Fiction in Europe 2008 / 2009: An Extraordinary Case of Diversity within Strict European Contours.

Together with Miha Kovac of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, we did a survey on book bestseller lists in seven major European markets over the past 12 months The top 40 writers divide into 13 writing in English, and 27 writing in other – European – languages, with Swedish (8), French (5) as the strongest, beating Dutch and German (each 4), Italian (3), Spanish (2), and Brazilian Portuguese (1). Not a single writer to be translated from a non-European language could make it into the top 40 author’s charts (in previous years, however, the Japanese Haruki Murakami, or Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk may have spoiled this exclusively Euro-centric pattern, yet only slightly). Not even a Central European or a Russian author is among the top listed. However within the English realm, 2 authors with clearly non-Western bearings and agendas are among those who met with the largest reading audiences across the continent, Afghanistan born Khaled Hosseini and India born Man Booker Prize Winner of 2008, Aravind Adiga.

More to this here.

A separate, yet related piece by us has been published by the Frankfurt Book Fair here.

Publishing going private in China? Probably soon.

Is China ready for the next move in allowing publishers to just mind about their own business? It seems so.

The official China news agency Xinhua reports refering to China Daily: “About six or seven press and publishing giants with annual revenues of more than 10 billion yuan (1.46 billion U.S. dollars) will be set up to compete globally in three to five years,” said Fan Weiping, director of the publishing industry development department affiliated to the GAPP.”

The China General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) which is both running the publishing industry and censorship, released guidelines earlier this week saying that “market-oriented news organizations and publishers have been given a deadline of one to two years to make the transition to full-fledged commercial players”, according to Xinhua.

These developments perfectly fit into a long term strategy of bringing China’s publishing industry in line with its global peers, as we reported here earlier.

The largest group, “Higher Education Press” already has a solid place in our ranking of the world’s top publishing conglomerates, and HEP has great ambitions to evelop into a global player, on par with the major players of the West.

Only last year, Liaoning Press was the first publishing company allowed to go public on the Shanghai stock exhange.

Other publishing ventures started to open offices abroad, like China Youth International Press did in London in 2008.

And Chinese online gaming companies like Shanda – listed at the Nasdaq – expanded into publishing by setting up its own “literature” division specializing in the booming online publishing business for young adult readers. (We will present Shanda’s vision in a panel at BookExpo America in just a month in New York.)


Reuters quotes the recent GAPP documents as saying that the

“policy “opinion” from the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) stresses that China’s Communist Party censors will continue controlling what appears in books and other publications.

But the document issued in the People’s Daily signals the government wants publishers — until now run more like the bureaucracies to which most are attached — to become more commercial through share offers, mergers, takeovers and controlled private investment.

“Encourage and support capital from society, especially from major state-owned businesses, to take part in the share-system restructuring of publishing and media businesses,” the GAPP announcement states.

“Encourage and support non-state-owned capital in various formed entering permitted (publishing) areas,” it adds.

Further Reuters reporting goes:

“The regulations signal private investment is going to play a bigger role,” said Zhang Shouli, who runs a Beijing-based distribution company for children’s books. He and other private operators have been lobbying for a firmer role.

“But these rules are still vague, so we’ll have to wait and see what the specific regulations allow.”

US editors meet their German peers

Having the pleasure and the privilege to travel with this group of US non fiction editors to see a number of German publishers in Munich and Frankfurt

Editors from the US on the S. Fischer Frankfurt roof top

Editors from the US on the S. Fischer Frankfurt roof top

– C.H. Beck, C. Hanser, Campus, Suhrkamp, S. Fischer, Random House  – the most interesting insight was at how many levels these markets have drifted apart:

  • Selling a good monograph to 12.000 readers (a normal target for German scholarly publishers) is just a dream on the US side;
  • Having philosophy or sociology titles finding readers outside of universities (and a shelf in a normal book store) again is unseen in the US;
  • Using print-on-demand is a very normal routine to produce books in the US, while their German homologues just start to discover this perspective;
  • EBooks accounting for 100.000 $ of sales in 2008 is better than average in the US; however such sales not even started in Europe;
  • Trying to jump start a book digitisation and eBook platform run by an association is hardly conceivable in the US, but a fact in Germany.

I will tell a few more details after a good night of sleep (or two). And, perhaps even more importantly, will introduce a few of those checking those new ways out.

More pix here

Traveling with books – on your mind

In only one day, I came across two just hilarious examples of how books and minds, across time and space, mock our funny lives as book worms.

I currently tour German publishers with a group of US editors, courtesy to the German Book Office of the Frankfurt Book Fair. This morning, after a nice meeting at Hanser Verlag in Munich, we were shown the villa of Thomas Mann.



Well, to be entirely honest, this is not exactly what the picture to the left shows. The house is in fact a life size replica of the building that the German writer had constructed from the royalties of his thundering success of “Die Buddenbrocks”, a novel about a German mercantile family, and where he lived until he went into exile from Hitler and the Nazi, to Switzerland, and then to California.

After 1945, we have been told, the house was acquired by a local drugstore owner, partly torn down, then adapted, refurbished, later, by 2000, owned by two brother Internet start up millionaires until they went bancrupt, then entirely torn down, and now reconstructed from scratch by an investment banker who made his fortune most recently by brokering, on behalf of Goldmann & Sachs, the merger of Daimler and Chrysler (another big failure of financial adventurism). Here we were, puzzled and in awe at the villa of Thomas Mann, yet now, allegedly with an indoor swimming pool in the basement.

Today, no income from literary work could buy such a house in the first place, of course.

Later this afternoon, over a beer, I read the newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and found the report (unfortunately not online) of Franziska Augstein, who was also accompanying a group of book people across Germany, in her case Muslim librarians.

They were shown, for instance, the destroyed Baroque jewel of what used to be the Anna Amalia library in Goethe’s Weimar, burned down a few years ago and now reconstructed in an amazing effort, painstakingly – to the puzzlement of a librarian from the Gaza strip where libraries also burned down, under Israeli bombardment, but no such effort is even conceivable, as even the acquisition of every single book must now be allowed by the occupying military.

One visiting librarian was intrigued by the pre-eminent role, here in Germany, of a certain Martin Luther, mentioned by the tour guide over and over again. The visitor from Saudi Arabia was familiar, of course, with Martin Luther King – but learns only here about the name patron of the gunned down US civil rights activist, the German reformer and translator of the Bible into local vernacula in the 16th century.

He likes the story, and yet that same guest is appalled in the Baroque environment by those mural paintings of naked bodies, even of children (meaning: angels, in Baroque fashion) – only to be told by a fellow Muslim traveler that this must be some mural against child labor.

Of course it is much too easy to marvel at such misunderstandings while omitting our own misreadings of “cultural discoveries” when on unfamiliar terrain.

In Afghanistan, a Kabul librarian explains that the Taliban did not even need to destruct all the libraries. The largest library of the capital, with some 300.000 books, or the size of an average faculty library in Germany, was not even cataloged, so finding a given title was almost impossible anyway.

Which puts an entirely new light on the importance of one more library visited by the group, called the Middle East Virtual Library, or Menalib in Halle.

Being busy with my group and with keeping up with my work, I couldn’t even check out properly that initiative aiming at digitizing and easing access to books and other documents from across the Arab world and the Middle East. But at a first glance, the initiative looks impressive indeed.

With the reconstructed Thomas Mann villa and the burned down and re-invented Anna Amalia library, and the many misconceptions and sheer misunderstandings in the most simple exchanges when traveling and seeing new things, I feel pretty humble – and, frankly, I like the idea that there is more and more of a back up available, even an imperfect one, yet accessible from almost everywhere, and by anone, of those books that we have and want to consult and read, and which may get lost otherwise by just some stupid accident.

Pulling the plug for the Kindle? And how to price eBooks? Or, it’s the audience, stupid.

It is just amazing how a really big organization like Amazon in less then 2 weeks makes an about face in their strategy for their arguably most ambitious strategic project, the Kindle.

After doing everything and a bit to roll out a radically proprietary machine, closing it like a can of Campell’s tomato soup to avoid piracy, and sharing of content, or allow any other players to put their fingers into the matter, they make a contrary statement, without blushing, saying that funny word: Oh, we discovered that there are a number of folks out there who perhaps won’t buy a Kindle, but who have a phone and who want to read e-Books as well. Sorry guys, we forgot about you initially, but right, why wouldn’t you continue to spend your reading money on So welcome, and here is our reading software, help yourself.

The 2 simple things about (printed) books are that we got used to read wherever and however we want; and we like to pass that book to our friends and colleagues. Both of which e-Books so far tried hard to boycott – and therefore failed.

Bringing the books to your phone is quite another story.

But then, at what price?

Amazon already set their benchmark at $ 9.99 – while many publishers, notably in Europe, started to struggle for e-Books to be priced just as printed books.

A friend pointed me to the Apple iTunes store which I had not explored so far for books. In some aspects it is still weird, as the iTunes store indexes books like “Music style: Book” – hinting that books only start to pop up on their radar screen, but they do come up.

They offer many freebies or cheapies, and the most popular, at least in Germany – you would never have guessed – are Karl Marx, followed by Goethe (oops) and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” (the Bible, in English though, is only #6).

The really interesting thing however is pricing, plus the fact that some publishers started already to experiment with *cool* community driven backlist titles that are still under copyright. Karl Marx (who is free already, is priced at € 0,79, like Goethe). More relevant are probably recent titles by living and therefore copyrighted authors. I found a brand new eBook version, released on Feb 9, 2009, of Gerhard Polt: Hundskrüppel (Polt is a “cult” author and popular comedian in Germany) at € 3.99. The same title is offered at the Amazon online bookstore as an audio CD at € 16.90, as a hardcover book at € 12.90, and as a paperback at €7.00.

Perhaps even more important is still another element illustrated by the iTunes store: Whoever is used to this iTunes environment takes it for a given that music videos, podcasts, audiobooks and now books are integrated into one realm, one pattern of *culture ware* (or stuff that I want to hear/read/watch), and the boundaries between say music and the word or the pictures have already blurred.

The book arrives here as a late, yet highly honorable guest at this party, and will certainly get integrated fast, but as just another format between all the many others. So the singularity, the uniqueness of the book will be gone – well, not really, I assume, because there are good reasons for the book to be considered as something special, as I have argued recently. But it is going to be interesting how things evolves.

Jason Epstein, only a couple of weeks ago at the O’Reilly Tools of Change” conference, had this wonderful metaphor for what is going on right now, before our eyes:

“Like blind men in a room with an elephant, we cannot begin to imagine the eventual consequences as digitization and the Internet ignite a worldwide Cultural Revolution orders of magnitude greater than Gutenberg’s inadvertent implementation of western civilization.”

I guess it is a big elephant indeed.

“Literary Translation and Culture”

2 events on translation are forthcoming – one local, one European – an I have the privilege to participate:

(a) “Literary Translation and Culture” is a one day conference, initiated and hosted by Manuel Baroso, the President of the European Commission, on April 20, 2009, in Brussels.

The early alert reads: “In the context of its policies to promote multilingualism and intercultural dialogue, the European Commission is organizing a Conference on the role of literary translation in Brussels on the 20th of April 2009.”

I will have an opportunity to do a brief introduction to the “Diversity Report 2008” and act as a rapporteur.

(b) A report on translations done and published by Austrian publishers, sponsored by the city of Vienna, is about to get finished and will be presented on April 16, 2009, 7 pm, at the Haupverband des österreichischen Buchhandels, Grünangergasse 4, 1010 Wien. Details and participants to follow.

Anticipating the global success of “Män som hatar kvinnor” – of what?

According to our charts, he was probably the most stunning author across Europe in 2008, and now his book makes it to the movies: “Män som hatar kvinnor“. You don’t recognize the smash hit?

This weekend, Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”, volume one of his Millennium series, is opening – in Sweden and Denmark.

This is all about the really counter-intuitive story of a feverish Swedish investigative journalist who, to make some money for his retirement, writes a series of 3 crime novels, but does so in a way that normally guarantees it that the book is not a success. The author dies only a week after bringing the manuscript to his publisher who, of course, recognizes the jewel he got and publishes the book. The rest is probably the most iconic legend about writing and publishing in these days.

Introducing “The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize” Long list, Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent likens Larsson together with Chilean Roberto Bolano’s “2666” (currently #14 in the UK charts) as the perfect examples for novels which, under conventional wisdom, should never ever make it into any bestseller charts, as both books are “very long, complicated, sometimes eccentric and driven by a quixotic idealism”, have a dead author and are translations- and yet.

The really amazing thing about the Larsson movie however is that after such a unique performance, it has not been turned into some Hollywood blockbuster with a cast of international stars. Instead it is a Danish production, directed by Berlin festival winner of 2006, Niels Arden Oplev.

Livres Hebdo reports that the movie may open the French movie festival in Cannes in May 2009, and that so far, volume 2 and 3 of the Millennium series are set to hit only TV and DVD screens, not the cinema. So far, TV rights for France have not been sold, but Canal+ seems to be closest.

Which just teaches a good lesson about culture and arts being much more complex as popular myths of “global homogenization” have it.

Salzburg Seminar on translation: From oral to written back to oral again?

It was Geety Dharmaraja of New Dehli, a beaming lady with an inescapable sense of mission and the founder of a stunning Indian translation project called Katha who made several of the most remarkable points at this week’s Salzburg Global Seminar on translation.

“Perhaps we are about to go full cycle”, she told the startled: “We started with oral traditions, moved on to written literature, and now get into oral story telling again!” And, wrapping it all up, she would proclaim upfront: “Gutenberg must not have to live!” Meaning something like who can be sure that the printed book on paper is once and for all the solution to our reading (and story telling) requirements.

Salzburg Schloss Leopoldskron

Salzburg Schloss Leopoldskron

We were sitting in the prestigious Schloss Leopoldskron (where theater director Max Reinhard had an apartment during the fesitval in the 1920s), with lots of snow outside, and ever more falling from a grayish sky, some 60 or so translators from 4 continents and experts in literature and translation.

Presentations and discussions were going in various directions: About the status of translating literature (and the poor working conditions for many translators), about models to foster translations, and yes, about funding and how to better organize funding. There was a wide spread consensus that much translation of main stream fiction can hardly be done and only find a publisher, certainly in the English speaking world, if the cost of translation is somehow dunded by a grant. So translation is very much a not for profit activity – with Harry Potter and the like being an exception.

I had the pleasure to give a presentation on our “Diversity Report 2008“, maping languages that, aside from English of course, are strong in translations, and others that struggle on the margins.

Salzburg Schloss Leopoldskron Library

Translators, as we all know, are a community of highly focused folks, busy with their craft. But in all our conversations, sometimes more openly, and sometimes only between the lines, the digital change ahead was the big question in the room: Can we still, for a while at least, do things as if nothing happened? And for how long? Or is change already here? And it was funny to realize how often someone acknoweledged that new things and new habits had already become part of the daily habits.

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