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Reading and Award: One and a half dozen of mostly young writers (young= 1 to 3 books published, on average) read an unpublished chapter before a jury of literary critics (and these critics have also nominated the authors – so they also compete, sort of) and an interested audience in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).

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.

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.

Paris reading – or what do you do with a comic book?

It’s a book fair. But most people line up – for someone drawing and painting often entire pages, in ink and bright colour!

Getting back from Paris and the Salon du Livre, happy to have survived aisles jammed by endless cohorts of youth lining up for their favorite comic book stars, I still have a smile on my face. Those comic book heros have been held responsible, in my youth, for an expected decline in reading. Yet today, all across Europe, and particularly so in France, comic books are, in every respect, a foundation of the book market and of reading culture.

Titeuf, that boy with his daring blond hair, is considered to have had not such a strong year in 2006, with ‚only‘ 570800 of his 11th album sold in a country of 50 million (which put Titeuf still on top of the year’s bestseller ranking once again)… Altogether, the French comic book market is growing steadily now for 12 years, and even in 2006, comic books are, with +0.5 %, one of the rare segments of growth.

However, even the dungeon that is French home grown comic book culture, for years has come under huge pressure from Far Eastern contendants, or to put it more simply: Mangas tend to overtake the French heros now more and more often, thereby triggering, according to Livres Hebdo, the serious threat of a ‚bubble‘ of overproduction. In this week’s top 20 bestseller list of ALL books sold in France, „Naruto“ (with vol. 20) is number 2, while a 50th anniverary volume of Gaston Lagaffe is only sixth.

While Europe this weekend was celebrating not only Gaston Lagaffe, but also the 50th anniverary of the European Union (what a coincidence indeed), I must remember, still smiling, as I said, that question of an American friend of mine who was wondering not so long ago: ‚Is there a comic book tradition in Europe‘, he asked.

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