About saying ‘me’ differently

I was really puzzled when I realized the amount of interest (and feedback) I had the other day with a piece written for Publishers Weekly about how autobiographies are classified in different ways in the AngloSaxon world, and in the rest of Europe:

While Americans and Brits expect writers of autobiographies to say the truth, somehow, in France, Spain or Germany, those same books are routinely classified as fiction.

Think of German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s autobiography “Peeling the Onion”, which was released last week and promoted with a talk between Grass and Norman Mailer in New York, a book reveiling the fact of Grass, the moralist, having been a member of Nazi Waffen SS as a youth, which of course was listed as fiction in Germany last year. Or even more stunning, John Grisham’s The Invisible Man, an essay against the death penalty – again read as a book of fiction in Europe due to the author being a writer of novels primarily. 

One of my interview partners for the piece, Bernhard Fetz, a Vienna-based researcher with the Austrian National Library, and a specialist in the genre, pointed to a pretty  complex set of traditions beneath the odd differences in classification, as he told me:

“The differences of perception go back to antagonistic traditions in philosophy and cultural history: While Germany, or France, have a mostly idealist tradition in culture, Britain, and hence the U.S., have always had a more pragmatic approach. Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Goethe, always combined factual accounts with personal intuitions and selfreflections of the author, giving autobiographies also a political angle by defining a life story as exemplary for a nation. The Anglo-Saxon tradition was instead much more and much earlier influenced by science, and therefore supposed to rely on facts, and less on intentions, Fetz says.

Amazing, I think, and you understand why reading the same book in different cultural surroundings may provide a very different read (and understanding) indeed!

My loss

I don’t need to tell you more than the fact that I lost almost my entire virtual capital on the betting scheme for the Ingeborg Bachman award (see previous post), while the crowd at large narrowed their focus in an impressive curve steadily onto the winner Lutz Seiler (hence giving up in continuous, yet opportunistic – oh yes! – moves on its initial hero who was PeterLicht, a writer performer who wouldn’t reveil his face to cameras).

In fact we know about the impressive likelyhood of such crowds to demonstrate their collective wisdome since the mid / late 1990s when similar betting schemes proved to be usually more successful e.g. in predicting the outcome of general elections.

But what does that mean to all of us experts, in one field or another! Hélas, aren’t we happy to be asked for our insights every once in a while nevertheless? Lucky us.

Those literary values – revisited

Over dinner – or, if you prefer, during the past hour or so – I lost roughly 10 percent of my literary capital.

Initially, I had 5000 $, provided by Riesenmaschine, a Berlin based fancy blog, to bet on the outcome of what is still probably the strangest annual event in literature in the German speaking sphere, the Ingeborg Bachmann Reading and Award: One and a half dozen of mostly young writers (young= 1 to 3 books published, on average) read an unpublished chapter before a jury of literary critics (and these critics have also nominated the authors – so they also compete, sort of) and an interested audience in arena like setting. The reading authors are – sometimes pretty harshly – reviewed live, in front of the audience and TV cameras (yes, the entire event is broadcast live by a public culture channel in Austria and Germany), and at the end, one is declared the year’s Ingeborg Bachmann winner, and a few more get additional awards and recognition – or, if they crash, they can nosedive their career.

The event is the most hated literary encounter for over 2 decades now, and still alive, and everybody who wants to be somebody in literature, goes there, ready to get badly hurt, or, like in a lotery, become the unlikely winner against all the odds.

This year’s novelty is that you can bet on the winner online, in some stock market mimikry scheme: You get 5000 virtual bucks, can invest and divest and have fun at not really any real risk.

The betting scheme is provided by Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur, or ZIA, basically an agency full of nerdy, funny, yet very professional Berlin based text workers (from PR texts to – yes, you bet – Bachmann award winning literature, as their Kathrin Passig won last year’s award with prose just perfectly targeted at that jury so that everyone was startled, both by the text and by the cold blood of its author who deliberately calculated her shots – at the jury, the audience, the entire set up).

The ZIA – which mocks, of course, CIA – also earlier proved its strong understanding of the internet, by organizing virtual audiences to the effect of lobbying successfully for their favourite participant for the ‘Audience Award’ for three years in a row!

Well, and this year, as all awards had been taken home already in the past by ZIA, they opted for calibrating the entire thing with their virtual Bachmann stock exchange.

Ever curious, I took my 5000 ZIA $ and will try my luck / skill / insight, or whatever – and keep you posted till the end which is scheduled for July 1st. Stay with us and see if I win.

Is ‘publishing’ just about books? Not exactly!

We proudly announce the birth of our new baby – the Livres Hebdo Global Ranking of the Publishing Industry, or the first reliable list of all publishing groups from around the globe with revenues of over 200 million Euros or 250 million dollars.

For almost 10 months, we were researched, tracked down data and people helping us, kept checking and cross checking numbers and sources, in order to produce a list of the top 45 groups, plus many of their major sub-divisions and sometimes even regional break down figures, plus an ample documentation on who is doing what exactly.

 And guess what, we did not find only books.  Almost the contrary is true, as the top 5 include only 1 and a half traditional ‘trade publishers’, with Pearson’s Penguin division (Pearson being #2), and with Bertelsmann (#5).

 The world’s biggest houses are Reed Elsevier, Pearson, Thomson, Bertelsmann and Wolters Kluwer.

Take also note that the top 45 groups account for a turnover of ca. 52 billion Euros – with almost half of it from non-Anglo-Saxon corporations. This compares to the number of 80 billion dollars (or 60 billion Euros) for all of global publishing, according to last year’s estimate by the International Publishers Association IPA. Or, our 45 ranked publishers account for a really hefty chunk of our industry.

The definition of ‘publishing’ as used on the ranking includes book publishing (trade, STM, education, etc.), book clubs, other closely related activities (e.g. retail or distribution), relevant database publishing (e.g. professional information) and journals. It excludes however newspaper and consumer magazine publishing.

I suppose these numbers, and what’s in them at a closer look, will trigger some debate, even more so as over the next weeks, the ranking will be co-piublished, aside from the French Livres Hebdo, by Publishers Weekly (US), Buchreport (Germany), Svensk Bokhandel (Sweden) and Publishing Today (PR China).

On stealing – and debate – in book country

Roughly a week ago, at this year’s BookExpo America, I ran into a smiling Rüdiger Salat, the person in charge of all things bookish at Holtzbrinck. He was beaming as he had just returned from the Google booth  where, together with Richard Charkin, the CEO of Holtzbrinck’s Macmillan publisher, they had grabbed two of Google’s laptop computers that were sitting there, unguarded, and returned them only when a nice Google employee asked if those were theirs – doing so in an analogy to what Google does, according to him, to publishers by scanning copyrighted books from libraries.

When Charkin bragged about the story in his blog, expectedly, he triggered quite a controversial debate, spanning from ethical questions (like: Should CEO’s act like High School grads) to the fine print of copyright law and the general discussion on Google’s digitization of books from libraries and their understanding of how to handle Intellectual Property Rights of out of print books, an exchange that even made it into the NYT.

Being not a lawyer, I have the feeling that Lawrnece Lessig’s analyses of the ‘stealing’ issue is probably a pretty straight forward comment on the legal side of it.

Personally, I am more interested in the ‘interactive’ or ‘performative’ perspective of the somewhat surprising occurence: I think it is great to move that stubborn and redundand IPR/Google/publishers debate as far away from the lobbyist / lawyer / corporate communication routine where it got stuck.

Go for it from a user’s perspective: The next time you (or your kids) get sued for illegally ‘grabbing’ some stuff from the Internet, call it e.g. an experimental, yet recognized industry practice. Or think of the unholy controversy on open access and scientific publishing: It is probably just too simple to think that all academic exchanges can be fitted either into the costly scientific publisher’s baskets, or set up their open archives, yet with no money for the authors.

I guess what Charkin so convincingly demonstrated, is just this: We need more experiments in the rights sphere, and less legal cases. So I am just gratefully and curiously looking forward to his upcoming test runs indeed!

Bookmarkets – where’s the limit?

At BookExpo America, I could set up and launch a debate on the “Internationalisation of English reading“, or a funny 3 bn $ market niche that so far got little attention by book folks aside from the few online and wholsalers who are actively increasing their revenues from it.

Anyone exploring a major book store in Europe can see how the ‘foreign language’ section (as they used to call it when ‘foreign’ was still considered to draw a clear line of separation between ‘us’ and some ‘other’) has expanded over the past few years. Yet hardly anyone has so far tried to make sense out of it, in terms of business, culture, or personal convenience for readers like you and me.

Many funny things occur in that niche:

1. It doesn’t exist in the first place, at least if you look at the general trade statistics. Yet, as Pascal Zimmer of Libri could show at our debate,  if you consider the sales of any major wholesaler, and dig up data from within their warehouses, you see how tremendously the niche is growing. You can, of course, also just look at many readers (I am a good example myself) to realize that reading the ‘original’ has become pretty popular in no time.

2. For some reading markets, like Scandinavia or the Netherlands, this even turned into a substantial problem, at least as far as translations are concerned, e.g. from English into Swedish or Dutch, as Lasse Winkler from the Swedish book trade magazine Svensk Bokhandel told us, as the imports aggressively compete with those translations.

3. In major corporations, this competition between several language versions unavoidably became part of a sales strategy, as explained by Richard Kitson of Hachette / Hodder Headline UK, as his company routinely adds to the domestic sales of UK fiction bestsellers over 100.000 (!) more exported copies across Europe alone, and guess what, of course these export markets are the same into which translation rights for the same title have been sold.

I put some material at my website, with more on this exciting and likely also controversial subject to come.

Diversity? Of course, please! But only then, the trouble sets in.

Last night, I was invited by Gerfried Sperl of Der Standard newspaper, to sit on a panel discussing the UNESCO declaration on cultural diversity, together with Unesco’s Austrian representative Gabriele Eschig, writer Marlen Streeruwitz and Green MP Wolfgang Zinggl.

Of course, between us, we considered the Unesco convention to be a positive move in the right direction, given all the obvious changes in the cultural sphere.

But only then, during our debate, I started to realize – and was puzzled – how clearly a line separated two different approaches to its value and perspectives.

Marlen pointed out probably most clearly how she welcomed the declaration as the return of politics into a field that was recently taken over by brutal market forces, and how she expected now small island of protected, secured land to emerge within the general turmoil. For her, in an analyses of power positions, the goal of the declaration was to help those who, like artists, or other minoritarian groups, speak from low power positions, to retain control over ‘their’ cultures and hence their ‘territories’ (while those market driven forces tend to erase such borderlines and territories).

There is no doubt, I guess, that such a threat does exist, and such simple examples like the disappearence of small neighborhood book shops, giving way to non-territorial marketplaces like Amazon, well illustrate what occurs.

Yet, I have my problems with the perspective of a landscape full of fortified, little villages, as urban culture, from its beginning, was based on open spaces, and on opening doors and windows to ease the exchange and communication between the many, and by tearing down the walls of territorial entities.

There is probably no easy answer to this conflicting perspectives, but I understood at least, what the question may be. Which is a pretty good result for an hour and a half of debate, I think.

That hidden 3 bn dollar book market

Book markets today have a reputation of being slow, flat, little exciting, except for those breath taking crime novels that top so many bestseller lists around the globe.

Yet there is this 3 bn dollar niche market that draw little attent, if not by a few international sales people from wholesalers or large corporations.

I speak of the expanding market of English language books that are exported from the UK and US into the rest of the world.

In 2005, the US exported books for 981 million USD, and the UK books for another 2246 USD (and these numbers already exclude exports from the US into Canada and the UK, and from the UK into the US, Ireland and Australia – otherwise it is a staggering 5 bn market niche). And these export markets show significant growth in some places.

Put together, the 3 bn $ cake grew by 20 percent over a decade, from 2461 m $ in 1995 to 2975 in 2005 (all numbers according to the UK Dept. of Trade and Industry, and the US Trade Stats Express).

Those numbers get even more interesting, once we dig into details.

 Rule Britannia

First of all, we see that the UK is by far the stronger exporter than the US, and this is true for most target markets indeed.

Germany in 2005 imported 95 m Pound Sterling (or almost 200 m $) worth of British books as compared to less than 60 m Yankee books.

China bought books for 27 m $ from the UK as compared to 20 m $ from the US – and China is, for books just as well as for anything else, probably the most important destination in the near future. Imports from the UK grew from 1,3 m GBP (or some 2,5 m $) in 1995 pretty much continually to its level of today, while from the US side, it started in 1995 from more serious 6 m $, at a much  slower pace, to its current purchasing level.

One may think that this is all a bit like Harry Potter, that British wizzard and sorcerer, who conquered the world, starting at what was at least in the beginning, a rather obscure British boarding school. And yes, those HP books opened many doors, for instance when they hit the top of the German bestseller in 2000 – in English!

Well expect the details about Harry and the Global World of Books – and much more in the weeks to come on the booklab blog, as we prepare at BookExpo America for a Global Market Forum on June 1st, 2007, on exactly those questions, with 2 top expert panels and a lot of insight.

More to come to a blog near you…

Robert Fulghum’s new book: First in Czech. English follows later!

As we screen and analyse international bestseller lists for several book trade magazines month by month, we were puzzled by that the new book of Robert Fulghum, author of many essays, notably All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1986).

His new collection of notes, essays, and observations, titled “What On Earth Have I Done”, hit the Czech charts as of last month – while the English original is announced only for next fall. months before its publication in English. Surprised by such a strange routine, I wrote to Robert Fulghum – and got back a wonderful story that says a lot about why sharing information on interesting books from many places makes a lot of sense and a lot of fun to many people indeed. So I share that story with you in its entirety down below. 

This is what Robert Fulghum wrote:

In partial answer to the question to you raise, I’ll tell you a nice story. All of my books have been published in Czech over the years as a result of the interest of one person, Eva Slamova, the editor-in-chief of Argo. When I began writing a novel, she wanted to see it. My own American editor didn’t want me to write fiction and wasn’t encouraging. Eva, on the other hand, published the novel as I wrote it – in three volumes and beautifully – and it has had great success. THIRD WISH is the tile. Now it has been published in Slovak and Hungarian. A radio adaptation was made for Czech Radio, and a theater piece has developed from it.  My entire contract for the novel said, “Publish it well and send me some money if you make some.” They did and they did. Nice, yes? 

And so, when I finished my new book of essays and stories, I wanted the Czechs to publish it first, in appreciation for Eva’s faith in my writing. Some critics wonder if the novel and the essays are somehow not good enough to be published in the states, but they don’t understand. It is a real honor to be published first in Czech – theirs is a long and distinguished literary tradition. My American editor and publisher find this confusing, but the USA is not at the top of the heap in many respects these days, and it takes some getting used to. Mostly American publishers think of the sales to European countries as stripping the cow – just extra income – without much respect for the readers outside the USA. Who cares what the Czechs and Slovaks and Hungarians think and read? Well I care very much.

 My new book of essays, What On Earth Have I Done? will be published by St. Martin’s Press in the USA in September, and the novel is being considered now by three publishers here. Meanwhile, I am very happy to continue to have my books launched in Czech.

 There’s more to the story, but that’s a beginning. So far, nobody has really noticed this except you. Come to the Czech or Hungarian book fairs and see first hand what’s going on.  With thanks for your interest and warmest regards, Robert Fulghum”

PS: In the mean time Fulghum has arrived in Prague, just in time for the local book fair, Prague Book World”, and enjoys the fair, the books, good company – and good Czech beer, as he told me on the phone.

Nobel Awarded Elfriede Jelinek Writes Next Novel Online

Ever wanted to look across the shoulder of a real Nobel laureate as she (or he) writes? Austrian Elfriede Jelinek (Nobel Laureate in 2004) decided to post her forthcoming novel “Neid” (“Envy”) online, chapter by chapter.

The text starts with this sentence: “Kleine Lebenswelten stürzen nach außen, die dazupassenden kleinen Lebensweisheiten nach innen. In der Mitte treffen sie einander.” (Which translates, word by word, as follows: “Small living worlds crash to the outside, while the fitting small truths of life (dive) inward. They meet in the middle.”)

But if you consider this an act of public writing, you’re dead wrong. Elfriede defines her new book as a “private novel”. Two chapters are already available, with a lot more to come.

The writer who always walked the fine line between public fame and private retreat has been an avert reader of international writing (provided it has the kick of, for example, Thomas Pynchon – whose “Gravity’s Rainbow” she translated into German) when hardly anyone outside the German speaking audiences had ever heard of her.

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