Proudly presenting: The global (and European) bestselling authors of 2008

Working on bestselling books and author, we did a first ever ranking of the bestselling authors 2008 in Europe and globally. Here is our gobal top 20 fiction list:

1 Khaled Hosseini

2 Stieg Larsson

3 Ken Follett

4 Stephenie Meyer

5 Muriel Barbery

6 Carlos Ruiz Zafón

7 Anna Gavalda

8 John Grisham

9 JK Rowling

10 Henning Mankell

11 Alan Bennett

12 Jodi Picoult

13 Christopher Paolini

14 David Baldacci

15 Nicholas Sparks

16 Elizabeth George

17 Lauren Weisberger

18 Michael Connelly

19 Patricia D Cornwell

20 Paulo Coelho

The Bookseller broke the story, and the Guardian picked it up here.

It’s the Crisis, stupid! But what does this really mean?

Tracking news about how the crisis affects publishing over the past two months produces some strange findings. Almost instantly, starting as of  November 2008, we saw predictions about how the crisis would hit the industry. Then in December – and now again, with the year’s end reporting – we are told that notably in the US, UK and France, XMas 08 was pretty dark in various segments of the book trade. In Germany, it was not so bleak, but all of the rest of 2008 was not terrific in the first place.

Between these notes, we also heard quickly reports about imminent job cuts (notably in the US, with Simon &  Schuster, Macmillan), restructuring measures and (at Houghton Mifflin) an instant freeze in the acquisition of new titles.

But frankly, these are all pretty dumb, unspecific measures and reactions. What does this mean for a publishing company to stop buying new titles? (And Houghton had build its Himalaya of debt well before the crisis was on the horizon!)

But most amazing is how little we hear about the deeper – structural – trouble in the industry.  Only in France, in Livres Hebdo and in Le Monde, I found some pieces addressing the huge rise of advances over the past years, or more detailed observations about distribution and consolidation.

I didn’t find any well informed reflections about the overproduction (the flood of titles); or the internationalization of the trade, of trends and of author brands; or the probably new dynamics (and competition) between imprints of large conglomerates and independents with regard to the crisis.

Most of all, I would expect that this crisis will trigger digital change, because if you can dramatically reduce the cost of production, storage, distribution and also marketing by doing it all in an integrated digital environment, it is not all too difficult to predict that at least some actors – from within the industry, or some new entrants – will go down that path.

Well, I will do my best in the weeks and months to track information and thoughts along those lines and discuss it on this site.

On translation across Europe: The Diversity Report 2008

The basic pattern is familiar: Most translations of books have English originals (ca. 60 percent on average) , while hardly any translations travel back into English (guesses are at 2 to 3 percent).

But what happens to smaller languages, e.g. from highly fragmented, yet culturally rich regions such as Central Europe? And how do medium sized languages, like French or German?

This is what the Diversity Report 2008 is all about, a very first approach to mapping the flows of translation all across Europe, which is now ready for download.

There are a lot of surprises in the 44 page report which is packed with over 30 diagrams full of details:

The strongest translating country is not Germany anymore, but France;

Translations between Central European countries are only half of what it was before 1989, disregarding all funding efforts;

Translations from German into many languages decrease, undermining Germany’s role as a gateway to many languages and cultures;

There are a few winners in Central Europe (and elsewhere) though, languages with an upward trend for translations, notably Swedish, Polish, or Czech.

Frankly, compiling the report and mapping cultural diversity was a hell of a lot of work, and my brain is still confused from all the numbers and charts we produced, but it was clearly worth the effort.

And I shall report details here, after our presentation on Friday at the “On Translation” conference at Buch Wien 08.

Change in publishing: Yes, we can! Can we?

A brief visit to the Netherlands parachuted me into an interesting university seminar at Leiden – a lovely city with an outstanding and historically long tradition both in book printing and in gardening and an impressive brand new public library.

After spending a few hours in the botanical garden, where they had planted those very first tulip pulps in the 17th which led to one of the first really severe stock market break downs of modern history, I sat down in an auditorium and listened to three gentlemen from the Dutch book trade, as they rolled out their views on digital change ahead.

Interestingly enough, they seemed to be pretty confident about what was going to happen.

One (who runs a kind of consortium distribution agency for books owned by all the publishers collectively?!) said that they needed only to adapt their fulfillment to the new kinds of electronic books.

The second, a librarian, had visions about how libraries would become agents in turning those digital documents into Print on Demand (POD) books – yet did not seem to be very much aware of the complexities in dealing with all the copyrights and commercial interests  involved.

The third, who was with an e-Book facilitator, saw a good business in helping probably independent publishers in going digital.

All three were kind of sure that e-books will be just a new kind of paperback or audio book subsidiary right of  books as we know them.

As these gentlemen spoke, 4 different kinds of e-Book readers were passed to us in the auditorium, the Amazon Kindle (which kind of froze, and it was impossible to me or anyone else to get it back to life), a Sony Reader (which was clearly my favorite in terms of look & feel), and two others.

Surprisingly enough for such a specialized set of speakers and listeners, money, business models or rights issues – aside of direct piracy, which everybody disliked, of course – were hardly addressed.

I did my best in expressing my suspicion that the paths into the digital future of the book will be less linear than expected by the present practitioners.

Still, I feel an urge to repeat, once again, this old joke:

Remember this debate about how we need to imagine God? Someone from the audience stands up and says: “First of all, She is black!”

I suppose that e-Books will mean real change, and not just more of the same.

eBooks: It’s about reading and access, not gadgets

At the Frankfurt Book fair, I was amazed that a pretty much technical panel debate could draw a crowd of some 100 people for almost an hour.

I had the pleasure to host the talk with UK consultant Mark Bide, Piero Atanasio of the Italian Association of Publishers, and Simon Juden of the British Publishers’ Association about some pretty dry outlooks into the digital future. Everyone agreed on 2 things:

1. There is a lot of change ahead (not a surprise)

2. Things may be much less controversial than expected, because much of the hassle could be sorted out by technical innovations, instead of lawyers and litigation.

Today, various news wires bring the confirmation that the legal showdown between Google and the US publishers’ and authors organizations has been avoided and replaced by an out of court settlement (here is the release of AAP), opening doors, libraries and screens for tons of digital books online, and certainly encouraging Google to push even stronger in its digitization strategy.

A few days ago, I read – as it had been expected since one year – that Random House has signed an agreement with Google book search for all their  English language books.

In the meantime, all the hype about gadgets seems to cool off quite a bit as no release date for Amazon’s Kindle in Europe has been given in Frankfurt. No relevant Kindle 2.0 announcement has been made. Sony Reader is not available in many places in time for Christmas.

So I feel pretty much confirmed in my expectation that digital change is ahead, yet it is about access and reading, and it is much less about little plastic boxes of any kind.

Was the Frankfurt Book Fair only about “Waffeleisen” – odd stories about e-Book neverland

So what was the news at Frankfurt?

Funny question. No clear answer.

Someone at the show told me that there were “no  great books”. But this is the refrain almost every year – and has little to say about the after effects of the show. Someone entirely unconnected to the trade mentioned this “scandal about a Czech or Slovakian writer” – the revelation that Czech émigré Milan Kundera had betrayed someone to the secret police at his early career. Which says a lot about how every book related story still gravitates around Frankfurt – including many more other stories that one could mention, including a lot of alleged “Frankfurt related” subsidiary rights deals which, in reality, have already happened, independently of the show, weeks and even months earlier.

Personally, I was a bit disappointed about the reporting on e-Books. The usually well informed “Die Zeit” of Hamburg ran a simply dull and lukewarm story about the subject, and the most notable thing about it (not according to me, but to a school friend who is not in publishing, but in banking!) is the use of the word “Waffeleisen” in the article.

I have to get technical here: “Waffeleisen” is the term for the iron mould to properly bake a Belgium “gaufre”(or waffle, for real cooking afficionados). In the Die Zeit piece, that related to the not really sexy Kindle design of Amazon’s e-reader.

Well, granted. But if all that was exploding left and right of our ears and noses over the past 8 months or so is about some awkward design, sorry, some of the media just did not get it.

  • Here are the good questions:

When will the Kindle be available in Germany, and other European countries, and how will they solve the deadlock about those possible downloads of books by one or the other phone networks? Amazon already postponed the UK release. I did not have time to google for the rest of Europe. But hey, what is e-Books, if you just can’t buy and use them? Would have been a good question for European reporters, right?

Entering “kindle” as a query at Amazon’s German site produces only a list topped by a Kindle charger (at 22.95 Euros, or 30$), while on Amazon’s US site, of course, we get an offer for the reading device at $ 359)

  • Question 01: Why wouldn’t European journalists ask the simple question: If the e-Book is imminent, when can we buy it?

I happened to moderate a panel with a few eminent European experts on the matter, Piero Atanasio of the Italian Publishers Association, Mark Bide of Rightscom, and Simon Juden of the British Publishers Association, and we were all clear about a few issues: E-Books are really taking off with considerable power (not due to some gadgets, but the concept of reading on screens, and hence distributing onto screens),  this will be a changing moment for the (publishing and bookselling) industry, yet we modestly acknowledged that predictions are pretty hard to make on how this will occur, and at what intervals (the audience was pretty packed and even stayed for one hour);

  • Question 02:  Why did hardly any professional journalist bother to research any of this?

The “financial crisis” – or “fc” as one may be induced to call it by now – was of course a side topic in all conversations at Frankfurt. But not one soul addressed the issue of how much cost can be saved by eliminating (a) printing and (b) distribution from a book’s cost sheet or a publishing company’s business model. Calibrate this with the inconveniences of reading on a screen and you know why at least some people are really curious about e-things.

But this also reveals what is short: This new e-something is NOT driven by the wish to innovate!

  • Question 03: Why did that not be prevalent in, at least, the conversations at the floor (not at the parties) – or have I talked  to the wrong people in Frankfurt?

Here is some hidden intelligence: The financial officers tend not to be at book fairs. But they usually compare their notes from reading the clippings of the press with their spreadsheets.

Conclusion: Frankfurt as always was superb. But keep reading between the lines, and be careful of who you are listening.

e-Books – beyond the hype of the e-reader

I have argued already on various occasions that I don’t believe that e-readers (like the Kindle or the Sony eReader) are the critical driving force for digital books (even as the current hype, notably around the Frankfurt Book Fair, produces an amazing number for media coverage on this topic).

It will be much more about

  • Reader’s already changing habits, as they move online without often really noticing it;
  • The book that merges (or, more drastically: dillutes) in the world wide web of information and linked knowledge; and
  • Changing business models as, I think, we will more and more move from paying (or selling) by the book , that is per item, to charging for access, so that subscription models, and flat fees for accessing platforms of content (and, of course, also piracy), will generate a shift that will require to re-define the publishing industry, and retail as well.

I tried to bring those thoughts together in an essay (in German, though), in time for Frankfurt, at Perlentaucher, the Berlin based notorious digital evangelizing hub for the German culture audience – here.

Student’s research on e-Books, on translation and on literature and migration

I am time and again amazed to see what – even undergraduate – students can achieve when they are allaowed (and a bit encouraged) to do research on sometimes tricky subjects.

So I am proud to point to 3 essays which each summarize a topic where otherwise little consistent information can be found (alas, you need to read German for getting the best out of it):

e-Books: If you want an overview of e-Books in a historic context, and a decent overview of the major current trends, go here.

Literature and migration: A key topic with regard too cultural diversity, and yet hardly researched, at least for German speaking countries – here.

Translation and the Austrian book market, a nice summary here.

And an overview of more student’s research here.

French Nobel Le Clézio – the financial crisis – e-Books: Weird reflections on a puzzling day

These are pretty weird days, and I have some difficulty in finding some coherent thoughts about what that means in a perspective of books.

The Nobel prize was given to the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. This was a surprise, for sure, but I thought at first: “Hein, c’est interessant”. I had read “Le désert” many years ago, a novel in praise of the clarity of desert life and the virtues of Tuareg nomads, perhaps a bit too thick in descriptions of that sound of nothingness, but not only did I like it and, decades later, still have the flavor of the book, and a few images. It was obvious – and even none of those nasty instant critics of the past 2 days contested this point -: Le Clézio knows what he is talking about. He talks about many countries, many people, many flavors, and this is, I suppose, something important and valuable which writers can bring us, provided their language is up to the job – and this is the other quality that hardly anyone questions. And yet, in Germany at least, several of the “grands pontifs”, or the big wigs of literary criticism, instantly threw at Le Clézio: The fact that they had never read one of his books. How weird! Critics who blame their ignorance on the writer whom they did not bother to read.

Earlier today, I also read a few quotes from European publishing executives about how the global financial crisis might affect books. And I learned a cute thing: It won’t affect books a lot, someone remarked, because people will eventually re-consider buying a new TV set, or a car, but not a trade paperback for 5 Euros. However, this does not mean that publishing *companies* would not be affected. And even very much so they are already, I learned from today’s Publishers’ Lunch newsletter where Michael Cader posted the losses of various US publishers’ and retailers’ losses (including some 31 percent for Amazon since September 19 – details for subscribers only).

Two thoughts slowly emerged in my mind, and I write them down at the risk of being wrong once again, in the short term: For e-Books, this crisis is a huge opportunity, because in the end, they offer publishers (and writers) possibilities to cut down on their costs, in terms of production and distribution, but even more so in communication with the readers. That can open doors, specifically in difficult (and in soul searching) times. And it can do so for very specific writers, who, like Le Clézio, at the same time, are both main stream (in their rather traditional approach to story telling and to humanity and their generic values) and marginal, or peripheral (in the choice of their topics, and their following), but who can find great significance by exactly their stubborn ways.

Since reading “Le désert”, I had, time and again, said to myself that I should read a few more books of this writer. I never did – nor did I ever meet him, despite of a certain, if unspecific desire to try.

Over time, I had been friends with two other writers who, as unexpectedly as Le Clézio, had ended up winning the Nobel: Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese, yet naturalized French, and Elfriede Jelinek, my Austrian compatriot. Each has a very strong sense of telling an unwanted story which, even later on, as the topic itself at some point becomes wildly welcome and prized, remains, in their specific telling, too violent, or too personal, or too awkward, or all of this, to make the writers really popular. Gao turned the catastrophic Cultural Revolution in China into a personal tale of such subtlety that, despite of all the cruelties mirrored, remained so private, that most of the critics turned it down. Jelinek does the reverse thing as she turns violence against normal, middle class girls and women and, probably more importantly, men’s fantasies into such public nightmares that they remain utterly indigestible, or unconsumeable, even against all of today’s movie and game fantasies.

Le Clézio, in my memories, has much milder things to say; perhaps he could be blamed for being the backpacker’s ultimate poet and soul mate. But this does not only explain why he is hated by capital literary honoraries – who always dislike those stray dogs who just drop their borrowed and torn paperbacks for the next traveling peer, instead of accumulating their private little library fortress in a middle class home. In fact, this stray dog’s writing can, perhaps, be very much what we may want to read now, after all those capital fund dogs got rid of much of our savings, plus our future tax payments, and that of our kids as well.

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