Back to live! With the European top 50 fiction authors 2010

After a pause of a few months – and lots of strategizing, research and development and just a huge load of regular work, this blog is back in operation. So expect to find posts and a few improvements here on a regular basis again.

The quick link of today points to the „50 Fiction Authors Whose Work Had the Greatest Impact on European Reading Markets in 2009„.

While we are fully aware of the leading trio – with Stieg Larsson, Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown -, the report and analysis carries quite a few surprises, too.

Only 21 of the 50 strongest authors write in English! Among the top 10, we find 3 Swedish crime authors. And we can deduct a number of insights on European reading markets – and how the reader’s curiosity seems to be much more substantial than conventional media reporting has it!

Who’s on top in Chinese fiction

The yearly top revenue based ranking of Chinese writers by Danwei provides, just as in previous editions, some highly interesting (and entertaining) insights in how the Chinese fans and readers are ticking. Don’t only go for the top few names, but read the by-lines, and occasionally check back grounds for the names listed – and you will discover some absolutely valuable and relevant results. The ranking is to be found here.

Freshly brewed: The „Diversity Report 2009“ – Cultural diversity in translations of books: Mapping fiction authors across Europe.

Books allow ideas and stories to travel, and translations are the vehicle of choice. Oddly enough for such a fundamental mechanism at the core of culture and cultural diversity, we have little precise knowledge, and certainly no data based analysis about the patterns formed by those flows, and even less about the forces driving or hindering the exchange.

After having tried to map the flows of translation across Europe at the most general level in the “Diversity Report 2008”, the present analysis has the ambition to break down those general observations to the level of individual (fiction) authors and their work, and track how they move across languages, or how they do not. Metaphorically speaking, we try to get from a general physical map of the European landscape of translations to a road map.

Findings include:

  1. Books translated from English represent on average about one third of the bestselling authors and titles across the continents, with only Sweden being significant exception;
  2. The UK bestseller market is by far the most averse to translations.
  3. As one consequence, national preferences show a much wider variety of – particularly domestic – authors and books, representing on average another solid third of the top segment, to the effect that countries’ reading preferences seem to be much more diverse, than ‘homogeneous’ across Europe;
  4. Only a small group of authors writing in ‘other’ languages than English or the respective local majority vernacular succeed with translations of their work in a larger number of markets and countries, with some like Larsson and Zafón out-competing their Anglo-Saxon peers;
  5. The very top segment in bestseller lists is a very narrow segment indeed, propelling just 2 or 3 authors in their own category for each country, with the singularity of this high peak marking a significant distinction between markets, and remarkably, it is the UK and Sweden, or two markets with a particularly high percentage of domestic authors on top, where the entire curve of the bestselling authors is considerably flatter than in countries with lesser impact of domestic authors;
  6. At least for the past few years, a recognizable number of European, non-English writing bestseller authors evolved and found a broad mainstream readership across markets and languages, yet exclusively authors from “Western” (or “old”) Europe, forming an exclusive club which is almost impossible to access for authors e.g. from CEE.This West-East “one way street” described above is the only pattern where West & East forms meaningful categories, just as “big” and “small” languages and markets of origin seem to play a far smaller role than often assumed;
  7. While in EUWest, no systematic distinction between a (‘high’) literary elite and eventual access to the top bestselling segment across Europe through translations seems to prevail, this is clearly the case for authors from CEE who made their way to the European literary ‘elite’, but as niche authors, not as authors found access to the European mainstream book readership.
  8. The diversity in fiction bestsellers in terms of treated topics, background of the authors, tonalities and styles is huge, and many of the most successful authors are initially ‘made by readers’, and not planned, contradicting, in the initial career of authors and their successful books, the popular notion of bestsellers being engineered and homogenous.

These findings come with a few provocative insights.

  • The market for rights and licenses which is currently the core driver for translations, does not take in the full spectrum and diversity of what is on offer from authors across Europe, nor what seems to be reader’s preferences. Instead, only a limited set of authors from a restricted set of backgrounds are given the full access to the European reading markets, despite the fact that the recent careers of European non-English writing authors provide strong indications that an appreciative readership for such a wide diversity may exist. The funding policies for translations lack the information and the tools for a realistic assessment of their efficiency.
  • The data compiled and, at least partly, analyzed for this report suggest that a more differentiated and realistic picture of the cultural dimensions of the European book and reading markets can actually be developed;
  • The ambivalent role of English as a bottleneck and as a driving force:
    All general translation data show the evidence of how little is translated into English, if compared to other target languages; and yet more of the ‘elite’ authors are available in English than what is generally assumed. English therefore plays a significant role as a transfer language (together with French and German), a factor of growing importance as the readiness of reading literature in certain foreign languages (most often this means: in English) seems to spread. In many markets, English reading of books written not only in English, but in any language seems to expand, and new digital technologies will drive this development forcefully in the near future.
  • For policy makers, this brings up the critical question of either continuing to focus on translations between the many languages, or to also emphasize lead programs of translations into English.
  • The potential for innovation by digital:
    As digital distribution currently picks up momentum with electronic reading devices and most new titles being rapidly available not only in print, but also in digital formats, there is a strong likeliness that books in translation as well as in their original editions (or in one transfer language, notably in English) will spread much more easily than in the past; this aspect has the potential to develop into a “game changing” mechanism for all kinds of niche reading, hence for literary translations, within a relatively short period of time.

The full „Diversity Report 2009“ is ready for download at .

Hot new books? Here!

I admit that I would go a long way only to find a reason to put up this unique picture featuring comic legend Dennis Patrick in his hay day as a pop culture icon likened until today by his fans to Elvis Presley or Lucille Ball.

patrick_dennisBut I don’t need to be original myself. It is good enough to do my humble job as a chronicler of current international book bestseller lists.

To my great surprise, this month’s top Italian charts are headed by Patrick’s famous „Auntie Mame“ („Zia Mame“), an unlikely winner as the book was originally published in the 1950s in the US, reprinted in many languages and editions ever since, yet without much of a fuss.

But at once, it rings a bell with Italians at this moment. Of course one may point to the co-incidence with another juicy title, „Papi“ – refering to Italy’s Prime Minister as a much admired hero of young girls and, once again, of political havoc recently – so perhaps one more time, those damned bestseller lists are more telling about what is going on than most of us would suspect.

Which is why, for more than four years now, we are analyzing them. And you can find our reading of those lists, and what they reveal, in many of the leading international book trade magazines, like the Bookseller, Publishers Weekly, Livres Hebdo, buchreport, Svensk Bokhandel, China Publishing Today or, speaking of Italy, in Informazioni Editoriali. And you find back issues of our insights here.

It is about tracking all the diversity in books across markets and languages. And one thrilling aspect is to identify possibly interesting new writer’s talent as it appears first in its original cultural environment. This is why from next month on, we will highlight a „title of the month“ together with our analysis – in our partner magazines as well as here on this blog.

Chinese novel „Wolf Totem“ to be made into a movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Tracking significant milestones of how Chinese literature and publishing interacts with the West, we can refer to reports in the Hollywood reporter and The Bookseller that Jiang Rong’s novel „Wolf Totem“ is going to be turned into a major movie by French director Jean Jacques Annaud.

As The Bookseller reports,

The film will be made in China, with backing from the Beijing Forbidden City Movie Co, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Annaud plans to plans to breed wolves and train them from birth to take part in the story of a Chinese student who goes to Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s and captures a wolf cub to raise.

The book which had been high up in China’s bestseller charts for years, was the first major acquisition of Penguin’s newly established Beijing bureau chief Jo Lusby ca. 3 years ago, and was then successfully presented in translations across Europe and the USA.

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.

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.

Buy a car (with a book), and other funny thoughts

This weeks edition of The Economist runs an insightful piece about the music industry’s experience of change over the past decade. I hadn’t thought of it either, but Apple’s iPod launch coincided exactly with the recession that had followed the Internet bubble burst and 9/11 less than a decade ago:

„Many observers thought the company had gone mad. Apple was launching an expensive new product (the first iPod cost $399) in the depths of the worst downturn the technology industry had ever seen. It was venturing outside its familiar market, for personal computers, into the fiercely competitive field of consumer electronics. And it was taking on Sony, the giant of the industry. The iPod’s name, sceptics declared, stood for ‚idiots price our devices‘.“

The Economist also notes how, after the crash (of music pricing and music revenues from CD sales) the record companies had started to understand how much more convenient a subscription model was against selling music by the album. Now the next step is to „hiding the cost of a music subscription inside something else.“ You buy a Nokia phone and get a year’s load of music for instance. Or you buy a car, and it sings for one year – or a car’s life time perhaps.

And just as iPods and downloadable music have strongly increased the relevance of live acts, especially for independent bands, so will e-Books do for literature and writers – says Irish writer and e-Book evangelist Julian Gough in an article of the Irish Times, because readings and literary festivals will become much bigger „as books dematerialise“.

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