Understanding and critically (yet openly) discussing the Google Settlement

With the debate on the Google Settlement and its likely meaning for various groups (and countries) turning into a strange confrontation of hidden interests and pure ideology in some places, notably in Europe, I want to invite anybody interested in the matter to check out this site and the possibilities for a meaningful and differenciated debate:

The Public Index

Heidelberg! A German controversy on books and culture in the digital age.

Is our culture threatened by Google and by the Open Access movement for freely accessible science publications? Are Google’s library scanning programs and the so called “Google settlement” with the US Author’s Guild a menace against the freedom of expression in Germany?

Such is the opinion expressed by the “Heidelberg Appell” made public by Roland Reuss in March 2009 and since then endorsed by 2600 publishing and literary people throughout Germany, and heavily promoted notably by most of the German mainstream media.

I rather guess that the ensuing debate is more of a – pretty belated – realization for many that things around the book, publishing and the readers are in fact changing dramatically, even if many tried hard to ignore it so far. This resulted in a memorable re-emergence of the old pattern of controversy confronting modernists and traditionalists.

I tried to sort out arguments and perspectives in two lengthy articles in German (initially published by Perlentaucher) and in English (initially published by Publishing Perspectives and documented at my own website as well.

Bringing Arab Books to New York @ BEA

Long time not write – but frankly, May and June so far have been a frenzy time (but now I can relax). One main cause was the ambitious project of preparing the Global Market Forum: The Arab World for BookExpo America. After test runs in previous years on the ‘global English reading’ in 2007 and on publishing in China in 2008, we had our first really broad international grip on BEA – and it was a really great success by all measures.

Amr Moussa of the Arab League and othe Dignitaries discussing the Arab World at BEA i New York

Amr Moussa of the Arab League and othe Dignitaries discussing the Arab World at BEA i New York

We had exhibitors from most of the core countries of the Arab world, including Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah), an opening ceremony with Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League,

a very substantial and well attended professional program (both in number and profile of the attendees) covering topics from translation, editorial issues, childrens books, to distribution to copyright,

Arab and US book professionals listening to Sheika Budour of Sharjah presenting her children's book program

Arab and US book professionals listening to Sheika Budour of Sharjah presenting her children's book program

and for the first tim ever, a cultural program outside of the professional fair, with “New Eyes on the Arab World” at the New York Public Library,

New Eyes on the Arab World at the New York Public Library, with Raja Alem, Tom McDonough, Joe Sacco, Peter Theroux and Suleiman Hatlan

New Eyes on the Arab World at the New York Public Library, with Raja Alem, Tom McDonough, Joe Sacco, Peter Theroux and Suleiman Hatlan

bringing together a Saudi woman writer – Raja Alem – who had written, in English, with a US colleague – Tom McDonough – about Mekka, a pretty famous graphical novelist from Portland, who had extensively published in his art on Islamic countries and issues – Joe Sacco – plus probably the most renowned translator of Arab fiction in the US – Peter Theroux – with a Dubai based TV host – Suleiman Hatlan – as a moderator.

Allow me to say that rarely I was attending a panel debate that was really so lively, so personally involved and inciting so much curiosity (this is what the general audience said, not me). Oh, and you can see a live stream – here.

Die Vielfalt der Bücher

Es ist bemerkenswert, dass all die heiß umstrittenen Themen in der aktuellen Debatte rund ums Buch – seine kulturelle Stellung als Kulturgut, das Urheberrecht, die Rolle der Verlage und des Handels – in so gut wie allen gängigen Standarddefinitionen des Buches seit dem 19. Jahrhundert nicht einmal angesprochen werden. Und viele kolportierte Thesen über Trends und Entwicklungen der Buchkultur – etwa über die Homogenisierung und Verflachung des Angebots durch den übermächtigen Konkurrenzdruck von englischsprachigen Bestsellern, oder die Vormacht weniger angelsächsischer Konzerne – werden zumeist nicht nur ohne empirische Evidenz vorgetragen. Sie sind in ihrer simplen Argumentation schlicht falsch. Wenn nun die Bedrohung der Kultur insgesamt durch Digitalisierung und Aushöhlung des Urheberrechts ausgerufen wird, sind die Evidenzen bei näherer Betrachtung zumindest fragwürdig. Mehr

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.

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