Book lovers are unwittingly paying for titles which appear to be the top-selling releases of the moment, when in some cases a publisher has paid the retailer to feature them in its “bestseller” charts, multiple industry figures have claimed.
Rankings displayed at shops such as WH Smith, as well as those compiled by online retailers, are determined partly by whether a book has been boosted in a deal with publishers, industry insiders say.
The practice has come to light after a former WH Smith employee alleged that when he worked at the retailer, staff were instructed to display author and TV presenter Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores, regardless of sales figures, because publisher Penguin Random House had paid for the space.
“When the last Richard Osman came out, Penguin bought the number one spot on all WH Smith in-store bestseller charts so it had to be displayed as the bestseller in every single store, whether it actually was or not,” Barry Pierce, who worked at the retailer from 2020 to 2021, recently claimed on social media.
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[T]he chart comprised books that WH Smith wanted to “push”, and was treated as a “promotional space” rather than a “legitimate chart” based on which books were selling the most copies, he claimed.
“Often… our area manager would come in and rearrange the chart so certain books [would] appear higher,” Mr Pierce added.
True bestseller charts based on figures from Nielsen BookScan – which collects point-of-sale data from more than 6,500 UK retailers – are widely regarded as the most accurate reflection of the top selling titles and authors.
The admission has prompted astonishment from readers and authors, but industry figures, who backed up Mr Pierce’s claim, maintained that such agreements have long been part of the way publishers and retailers do business and should not come as a surprise to the book-buying public.
James Daunt, managing director at Waterstones, the UK’s largest bookshop chain, said it was commonplace for other retailers to exchange spots in their charts for money.
Waterstones itself previously accepted millions of pounds each year from publishers to position titles in its “bestseller” charts, but Mr Daunt said he put an end to these deals as soon as he was appointed.
“Since I took over in 2011, Waterstones has never taken one penny to place books [on shelves]. The year before, Waterstones took £27 million [from publishers],” Mr Daunt said.
Link to the rest at Inews UK and thanks to H for the tip.
The question that occurred to PG was, “If a publisher was ethical in its business practices, would it pay for phony best-seller rankings.”
PG is certain a publisher would respond that this was just a time-honored method to increase sales and, thus, profits.
Inquiring minds might ask if calculations of the amount of royalties owed to authors were ever subject to this sort of “publishing industry practice.”
Britain’s brief but fertile Edwardian period was a golden age of children’s literature. The first decade of the 20th century saw the stage premiere of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and the publication of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” But no writer represents the genre in its heyday better than Beatrix Potter, whose diminutive illustrated picture books gave the world Peter Rabbit, Tomasina Tittlemouse and a host of other precocious animal characters. Precise, expressive watercolor illustrations by the author were the trademark of her books, which have now sold hundreds of millions of copies.
Potter, born in 1866, didn’t publish her first book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” until her mid-30s. She would go on to write 23 tales for children, but as early as 1913, at the height of her fame, she began to wind down her career to devote herself to sheep farming in England’s Lake District. When Potter died in 1943, she left behind a treasure trove of drawings, letters and personal effects, which form the basis of a new exhibition opening on Feb. 12 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
“Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” includes nearly 200 artworks, books, photographs and other objects, from Potter’s childhood sketches, already demonstrating a keen eye and a steady hand, to a letter written the week before she died. Potter was raised in an upper-middle-class Unitarian clan that made a fortune from printing calico cloth; a photograph of her at 15, holding one of her many pets, shows a cosseted young Victorian. The photo also hints at a sense of thwartedness. In spite of her career, she arguably lived under the thumb of her parents until she married at the age of 47.
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A toy from the 1920s based on Potter’s character Jemima Puddle-Duck is an artifact of her enterprising forays into merchandising. A cross between J.K. Rowling and John Muir, Potter set herself up in midlife as a guardian of the Lake District’s picturesque countryside and traditional farming methods. She first visited the area on childhood vacations with her family and eventually bought up some 4,000 acres of farmland, which she left to Britain’s National Trust. A 1909 watercolor landscape in the exhibition—“View across Esthwaite Water,” painted near where she eventually settled as a farmer—seems to cross objective topography with frank affection. Later, a 1930 photograph of Potter with a shepherd and a prize-winning ewe casts the London-born writer as a timeless rustic.
Never think the world is in decline. A recent book, “Speak Not” by James Griffiths, looks at the bad old days when it was seen as acceptable to impose a culture on others through force. The author tells the stories of Welsh and Hawaiian—languages driven to the brink of death or irrelevance before being saved by determined activists.
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Americans fomented a coup in Hawaii that led to its eventual annexation. Missionaries built schools and fervently discouraged local customs like the hula, a performance in honour of ancestors that the Americans considered lascivious. Oppression of culture and of the language went hand in hand: by the late 20th century the only fluent Hawaiian-speakers were worryingly old. But activists fought to expand teaching of it, and eventually brought Hawaiian into many schools. The number of speakers is now growing. Even some of the state’s many citizens of other ethnicities find it fashionable to learn a bit.
Welsh survived centuries of union with England largely because of Wales’s relative isolation and poverty. But in the 19th century British authorities stepped up efforts to impose English; schoolchildren had to wear a token of shame (the “Welsh Not”) if they spoke their native language, the kind of tactic seen in language oppression around the world.
Again, activists fought back. In 1936 three of them set fires at an air-force training ground built despite local opposition. The perpetrators turned themselves in, then refused to speak any language but Welsh at their first trial. It ended in a mistrial; their second resulted in a conviction, but on their release nine months later the arsonists were feted as heroes. They had lit a fire under Welsh-language nationalism, which in later decades would not only halt the decline in Welsh-speakers, but reverse it. Today the right to speak Welsh at trial (and in many other contexts) is guaranteed.
Mr Griffiths’s book ends with a sadder tale. Though Mandarin is the world’s most-spoken native language, China still has hundreds of millions of native speakers of other Chinese languages such as Cantonese (often misleadingly called “dialects”), as well as non-Han languages like those used in Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Evidently regarding this variety as unbefitting for a country on the rise, the authorities have redoubled their efforts to get everyone speaking Mandarin—for instance by cutting down Cantonese television and resettling Han Chinese in Tibet, part of a wider bid to dilute its culture. A regime indifferent to the tut-tutting of outsiders can go even further than American and British colonialists.
But English spreads by less coercive means, too. Rosemary Salomone’s new book, “The Rise of English”, tells the tale of a language that has gone from strength to strength after the demise of Britain’s empire and perhaps also of America’s global dominance. These two forces gave English an impetus, but once momentum takes hold of a language, whether of growth or decline, it tends to continue. Everyone wants to speak a language used by lots of other influential people.
The new Warner Bros. adaptation by Jon Spaights and director Denis Villenueve of Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune was released on October 22 in China. With Hans Zimmer’s exhilarating score, Patrice Vermette’s design, and the complex performance of Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) as Paul Atreides, the film seems to be working its windswept magic on the Chinese readership.
Dune in an edition from Jiangsu Literature & Art Press has entered the overall fiction list at No. 19 in November, just as in the United States, the film tie-in edition (Penguin Random House/Ace Books) has arrived at No. 2 on the Most Read Amazon Charts and No. 7 in Most Sold.
Our associates at Beijing OpenBook note that the book has been published in China before now, although the interest driving it onto the lists is clearly related to the film release. The edition you see at No. 19 in overall fiction–and moving up a spot from No. 5 to No. 6 on the international fiction bestseller list–was first released in 2016.
The real question becomes how much staying power something like a film-fueled Dune can be expected to show on the Chinese list.
Those who regularly follow our lists will see that the top three positions in November were occupied by the 2008 The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. It’s followed by its series-mates, The Dark Forest and Death’s End at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. This can be interpreted to be a reflection of Dune-prompted science-fiction interest, of course, but Liu’s trilogy has been charting for decades and these books are some of the cluster of the most reliably popular in the Chinese book industry.
What the OpenBook team describes as a condition of “insufficient hot spots” remains in sway on the Chinese lists. New work seems to have a tough time displacing the relatively recent “classics” that dominate this market’s slowly moving –most of these titles dating from the mid-20th century. “If a new book wants to be known by more readers,” our associates say in their discussion of the November charts, “it must overcome the existing bestsellers and gain an advantage. And that increases the difficulty of selling new authors and new works” who don’t come with their own following already intact.
IN HIS first public speech since he became chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Richard Moore said the service needs to “become more open to stay secret.” On “The Economist Asks” podcast, host Anne McElvoy and Shashank Joshi, The Economist’s defence editor, ask Mr Moore exactly what that means in practice.
The spymaster, whose position is traditionally referred to simply as “C”, describes the “entrepreneurial animal spirits” he hopes to attract by lifting the veil on MI6’s plans and challenges. Can partnering with technological talent lend British intelligence the heft it needs to punch above its weight against larger rivals like Russia and China?
China, Mr Moore says, is the service’s most pressing priority. Alongside what he calls the “key battleground” and exponentially-growing “digital attack surface” of technology and data-gathering, debt traps threaten to slowly erode the sovereignty of other states as China garners ever-more influence in emerging markets.
A key challenge, he says, will be to assert and defend Western democratic values while securing China’s “cooperation on the key transnational issues”, including “the biggest issue of all”—climate change.
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“Vladimir Putin…really does think that Russia, in the 21st century, has the right to impose limits on the sovereignty of the countries on its periphery,” he says. “And that’s a problem.” Still, he adds, Mr Putin runs the risk of underestimating his counterparts in Washington.
Despite a strong focus on technology, the business of intelligence is “still, fundamentally a question of building a relationship with a fellow human being,” he says. “That hasn’t changed. So I need officers who can build trust with people who are taking significant risks to work with us.” But as adversaries build up extraordinary surveillance capabilities, and after the heavily-publicised assassinations by Russian operatives, we ask Mr Moore how British intelligence services continue to guarantee protection to their agents.
JR Ellis’Murder at St Anne’s (Thomas & Mercer) has clocked in as the Bookstat e-book number one for the week ending 11th December, marking the author’s first number one in the chart.
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The e-book and print charts tend to divert more than ever at this time of year, with the print market so laser-focused on Christmas gifts and e-books still firmly in the self-gifting arena. The Bookstat chart saw a flurry of new entries, with Nicolas Sparks’ The Wish (Sphere), Robert Bryndza’s Darkness Falls (Sphere) and Emma Haughton’s The Dark (Hodder & Stoughton) debuting in the top five.
Empire of Pain. By Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday; 560 pages; $32.50. Picador; £20
This is the tragic, enraging story of the Sackler family, the previously low-profile owners of Purdue Pharma—which in 1996 introduced the drug OxyContin. The author shows how an epidemic of prescription-opioid abuse morphed into a worse one of illicit heroin and, later, fentanyl.
Do Not Disturb. By Michela Wrong. PublicAffairs; 512 pages; $32. Fourth Estate; £20
A devastating exposé of a remarkable leader, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. He won global praise for ending the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 and promoting development. But his regime has ruled through fear, invaded its neighbours and assassinated opponents even after they fled abroad. The author, a former admirer, spent years gathering evidence for this terrifying account.
Invisible China. By Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell. University of Chicago Press; 248 pages; $27.50 and £22
The biggest obstacle to China’s development is that rural children—two-thirds of the total—do terribly in school, argues this stunningly researched book. Many are malnourished, lack reading glasses or suffer from energy-sapping intestinal worms. If these basic problems are not fixed, say the authors, China will struggle to reach its goal of broad prosperity.
A wide-ranging account of the forces that propelled the writing of constitutions—documents that have defined the modern world—from the 18th century until today. The trend was driven by the evolving nature of war and turbocharged by high-speed printing presses. An illuminating and original global history.
Tunnel 29. By Helena Merriman. PublicAffairs; 352 pages; $28. Hodder & Stoughton; £20
Using a narrow, 120-metre tunnel beneath the wall that had recently divided their city, 29 East Berliners escaped to freedom in September 1962. A captivating retelling of one of the most astonishing episodes in East Germany’s grim history.
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Biography and memoir
Fall. By John Preston. HarperCollins; 352 pages; $28.99. Viking; £18.99
The story of Robert Maxwell, a monstrous, enigmatic, bullying, narcissistic crook of gigantic appetites—who at his peak was one of the world’s most recognisable businessmen—may be largely unknown to anyone under 40. This book tells it with great verve and the benefit of extensive interviews with, among others, Maxwell’s one-time rival Rupert Murdoch.
The Radical Potter. By Tristram Hunt. Metropolitan Books; 352 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £25
Josiah Wedgwood wanted to “astonish the world”. He succeeded, says this delightful biography of the 18th-century British potter. To boost productivity, he aimed to make machines of men—and he did.
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Mother for Dinner. By Shalom Auslander. Riverhead Books; 272 pages; $28. Picador; £16.99
In this laugh-out-loud, gravely serious satire on identity politics, a mother’s deathbed presents a solemn decision: whether or not to eat her. The family are Cannibal-Americans, the most reviled minority in a place where “everyone else was retreating to their cages and calling it freedom”. What, the novel asks uproariously, do individuals owe history?
The Books of Jacob. By Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Jennifer Croft. Fitzcarraldo Editions; 928 pages; £20. To be published in America by Riverhead Books in February; $35
The tome that secured its author the Nobel prize of 2018 encompasses a “fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the minor sects”. At the centre of this epic of faith, ideas and the Enlightenment is a real-life 18th-century mystic.
The Plot. By Jean Hanff Korelitz. Celadon Books; 317 pages; $28. Faber; £8.99
There are too many novels about writers, but this is one to read. A down-on-his-luck author steals a slam-dunk plot from a creepy student. The result is wealth, fame—and spiralling disaster. At once a close-to-the-bone satire on publishing, an inquiry into the ethics of storytelling and a propulsive upmarket thriller.
A journalist at the Wall Street Journal tells the story of the great vaccine race of 2020. A superb scientific drama of failure, determination and triumph.
I, Warbot. By Kenneth Payne. Oxford University Press; 336 pages; $29.95. Hurst; £20
A thought-provoking reflection on how artificial intelligence will change conflict. The offence will dominate, the author says. Martial virtues such as courage and leadership will yield to technical ones.
Being You. By Anil Seth. Dutton Books; 352 pages; $28. Faber; £20
Understanding consciousness is a “hard problem”, noted the philosopher David Chalmers. Here a pioneering neuroscientist takes readers to the edge of what is known, how scientists know it, and, most importantly, how that knowledge could be made useful in medicine and psychology.
PG notes that the Economist’s original list is much longer than PG’s excerpt.
He didn’t do a careful comparison between the Best Books list published by The Economist and that published by the New York Times, (posted just before this post) but he doesn’t think either publication’s list contained a book listed by the other.
He will grant that the New York Times is a general distribution American newspaper with a shrinking subscription base (as is the case with virtually every newspaper except, perhaps The Wall Street Journal, which currently has more than twice as many subscribers as the Times) and The Economist is a business magazine, but, even so PG expects most Economist subscribers who live in or near New York City are also likely to be subscribers to the Times. (As are the salaried employees of every New York publisher)
PG admits to not seeing any books on the NYT list that interested him. This surprised him somewhat. Several on the Economist’s list are on PG’s mental to-read list (which floats in and out of his mind and can’t be described as unchanging and for which he has no check-boxes).
Warily watching the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic numbers in Europe, particularly with the picture of the omicron variant’s presence still coming into focus, the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) in Brussels has opened a “No Christmas Without Books’ campaign.
The Booksellers Federation is joined by the Federation of European Publishers and Intergraf, the organization of more than 110,000 European and United Kingdom printing companies in this appeal, which calls on EU leadership and all the member-states’ national authorities to “Follow the lead of several European countries—Italy, France, Belgium—in recognizing books as essential cultural goods, thus allowing bookshops to remain open.”
The effort is a kind of pre-emptive strike, in the vernacular, a warning prior to many actual such closures having been put into place.
There’s a decided and understandable emphasis on print, of course, not only as the most desirable format for bookish gift traffic but also as the retail segment most vulnerable to sales-point shutdowns. In such closures lie the worst memories of the pre-vaccine part of the pandemic era, when, for example, Germany saw its bookstores closed just 15 days before Christmas 2020.
While many in South Africa have felt understandably penalized by travel restrictions resulting from the initial report and detection of the variant, Stephanie Nolan at The New York Times has a fine feature on the state-of-the-art KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in Durban and the accompanying door-to-door campaign being deployed to reach the population. The speed with which KRISP reported out its findings has contributed to the timeliness of today’s coordinated, cooperative international research effort on the variant.
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Words Without Borders, before moving to its December edition, has featured in November guest editor Olivia M. Coetzee’s look at Kaaps writing from South Africa, and we want to bring this to your attention, not least because it’s an example of Words Without Borders’ work in bringing to light some of the niche linguistic contexts.
In her introduction to Kaaps, Coetzee–who is originally from Namibia and was raised near Cape Town–points out the question “What is Kaaps” produces more than one answer. “Some would say that Kaaps is an Afrikaans dialect spoken by the so-called ‘Coloreds’ living in Cape Town. Others see Kaaps as a language distinct from Afrikaans,” she writes.
In notes provided by Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris notes, “Kaaps was created in settler colonial South Africa, developed by the 1500s, and took shape as a language during encounters between indigenous African (Khoi and San), South-East Asian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English people. Late-19th-century Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps and eliminated the indigenous elements in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans.”
Coetzee points to the fact that Kaaps has been considered slang, and thus “Kaaps literature and identity are in their infancy.
“While the first written form of Kaaps appeared in the Arabic Afrikaans alphabet of the early 1800s, there is a limited literary history where Kaaps is concerned. And this absence of Kaaps in the greater South African landscape contributes to the assumption of a people without an identity, agents of the ‘White man’s language,’ Afrikaans.
“And this is problematic for so many reasons to do with who we are as a people,” she writes, “with our identity, our roots, how we see ourselves in the world, where we see ourselves, and our place in the greater society of South Africa.”
What Coetzee is experiencing, it turns out, is the rise of Kaaps as a bonding agent between those who speak it. It begins to function as an element of identity, as she writes. “Language is important, not just as a communication tool, but as a marker of agency,” even with its image still in need of an upgrade.
“A lot of work must still be done to grow positive ideas about Kaaps and the Kaaps movement,” she writes, “but there are already some exciting initiatives underway. Currently a group led by Prof. Quentin Williams at the University of the Western Cape is in the process of producing a trilingual, first-of-its-kind Kaaps dictionary, and this work is a massive step in the direction of becoming as a people.”
The writers whose work she brings to the edition, she says, “not only expand the body of Kaaps literature, but also confirm the link between language and its speakers’ identities.”
After a strict convent education, Janine di Giovanni, an American war correspondent, drifted from religion. Yet as she travelled the world, reporting from Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, her faith returned. Wherever she went, she writes in “The Vanishing”, she would find a church, seeking “ritual and a sense of belonging”. Her book is the culmination of two decades of fieldwork in the Middle East, its four sections reflecting her stints in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. As the title suggests, it is a portrait of a disappearing people.
Christians are an embattled minority in many countries, including North Korea, where tens of thousands are believed to be held in concentration camps, and Sri Lanka, where around 250 people died in the Easter bombings of 2019. In the Middle East, Islamic extremists depict Christians as Westernised interlopers, yet the region was the birthplace of the religion, which flourished until the Muslim Arab conquest of the seventh century. Christians have since faced discrimination in varying degrees, precipitating waves of emigration. Today 93% of the population of the Middle East and north Africa are Muslim.
Ms di Giovanni brings a compassionate perspective to her narrative, interweaving complex, sometimes dense history with evocative vignettes and interviews. Her interlocutors range from nuns to imams, from the last vestiges of Gaza’s Christian elite to Cairo’s impoverished Zabbaleen, who sort rubbish in “Garbage City”. These “dying communities” of various Christian denominations, some claiming direct descent from Jesus’s disciples, share a stark choice: to abandon ancestral roots in search of a better life elsewhere, or cling on for a precarious future. Most keep their heads down, but the allegiance of some to dictators—seen as bulwarks against extremism—has antagonised Islamists.
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In the fourth century Gaza was wholly Christian. By the 21st century the community had shrunk to under 1,000, and the consequences of the election of Hamas in 2006 imperilled its members further. They endure the same hardships and dearth of opportunity as other Gazans and receive scant government protection; unemployment among young Christians stands at 70%. Egypt’s Christian population, chiefly Copts, is the region’s largest, but still suffers legal and social discrimination, even if some families are insulated by privilege. “The underlying sense of inferiority is our greatest persecution,” says one woman. “I’ve had Muslim men grab me by the hair and try to drag me because I don’t have a headscarf on.”
“I consider myself to be like a mosquito,” says Bob Elvis, a musician, from his studio in downtown Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I may be small but I can annoy you all night long, by singing, biting and not leaving you alone.”
Mr Elvis’s latest rap song, “Letter to Ya Tshitshi”, has rankled the president of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, so much that it was banned days after being released. The song addresses Étienne Tshisekedi, the president’s dead father, a firebrand opposition leader, by his nickname. It laments his son’s incompetence.
In the video, Mr Elvis raps to a photo of Mr Tshisekedi senior, surrounded by flickering candles. He repeats the refrain “since you left” and describes the country’s woes, from the scarcity of clean water to the abundance of corruption, electoral fraud and conflict. “Since you left, war in the east goes on,” he raps. “We are fighting for the rule of law.”
The Censorship Commission banned another six of Mr Elvis’s songs as well as a track called “What we have not done” by mpr, a hip-hop group. This song is about the failings of every Congolese president since independence. The ban on mpr’s track was rescinded a day later when fans kicked up a fuss.
Mr Elvis has not been so lucky. Broadcasters that play his forbidden tracks risk having their licences revoked. Other musicians have been targeted, too. A rapper from southern Congo, Sébastien Lumbwe, known as “Infrapa”, fled the country two weeks ago after being harassed by officials over his songs, which poke the government. “It is part of a pattern of shrinking civic space,” says Jean-Mobert Senga of Amnesty International, a watchdog. “It goes against President Tshisekedi’s commitment to respect human rights.”
The Czech digital seller of second-hand books Knihobot reported sales of some 18 million Czech koruna (US$792,000) for the entire year of 2020, but in October of this year alone, it generated sales of 10 million koruna (US$440,000).
This month, having raised its monthly sales to a level above the 2020 total, Knihobot is looking to expand its services to neighboring Slovakia, according to company officials.
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“Knihobot is an online platform and e-shop that helps with the circulation of books,” she says in describing the company’s brand.
“That means we’re helping people to sell their books and to find new ones. We arrange everything around the selling, storage, and even the transportation from your home to Knihobot’s storage.
“After the book is sold, we pay a commission to the original owner.”
Hladíková’s outlook in the near term is optimistic: “For this year,” she says, “we’re projecting a number of 70 or 80 million karuna. We’ll see.”
This upturn in Knihobot’s business may not indicate that Czech readers are losing interest in buying new books.
The latest available data from the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers (SKCN) suggests that in 2019, the country’s book market expanded by 3.5 percent to some 8.6 billion Koruna (US$379 million), reporting an annual increase for a fifth year.
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Asked whether it’s possible that the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged more readers to buy second-hand books, perhaps instead of using public libraries, Hladíková points to a number of factors that might explain Knihobot’s strong financial performance in past months.
“There are many reasons for this change of behavior” among consumers, she says.
“Sustainable consumer approach, a wider range of books because you can buy new and older publications in one place, better prices, and the rising online presence of second-hand bookshops overall.”
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Asked by Publishing Perspectives about the rising interest in used books and its potential impact on publishers’ and authors’ revenues, Czech publishing industry representatives have been reluctant to comment.
A Warsaw-based academic publishing executive speaking on condition of anonymity, however, tells us, “When you look at the size of the publishing market, second-hand book operations don’t represent a big share of the industry—but it’s another factor that is trimming [publishers’] profit margins, which already are quite slim.”
I remember traveling in the north of Sri Lanka, two years after the civil war, in areas where some of the worst fighting had taken place, and seeing yellow caution tape cordoning of large tracts of land. Signs warned in several languages of land mines. Later, I sat, safely ensconced in a Colombo café, as the leader of an NGO showed me pictures of women, protected by nothing more than plastic visors, crouched over piles of dirt and sand with implements that looked surprisingly like the kinds of rakes and hoes you find at a local Home Depot. The work clearing the land of mines, she told me, would likely take two decades.
I started working on my latest collection, Dark Tourist, after that 2011 trip as a way of exploring aftermath. Once the fighting has stopped, the ceasefire arranged, the peace treaty signed we turn our attention to the next conflict, too often ignoring the repercussions of the trauma and the attempts to heal. I wanted to explore the ways that grief both marks us and also the ways we manage to survive, to persevere, and to reckon with and make stories of our memories.
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Some of the books explore the impact of conflict on individuals who are trying to manage deep traumas. Others document the impact on generations one or two decades removed from the fighting. All the works are testament, to the need for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to document and give voice long after the journalists and the NGOs decamp to other hot zones.
Anuk Arudpragasm’s novel A Passage North begins with an invocation to the present:
“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.”
The novel goes on to carefully unravel that opening assertion. The present of the protagonist, Krishnan, is impinged on by multiple losses: the death of his father in a bombing during the height of the civil war; the estrangement of a lover, an activist who refuses to return to Sri Lanka; the imminent death of his aging grandmother; and his duty to her former caretaker. As Krishnan undertakes the titular voyage, the novel transforms into a meditation on loss and grief and also a reckoning in the ways his sorrow often blinds all of us to the suffering around us.
In a reversal of the traditional immigrant story, Thi Bui, in her graphic memoir, sets out to understand why her parents, both refugees from Vietnam, have failed her and her siblings. Bui’s delicate ink wash drawings provide a careful and detailed reconstruction of her father and mother’s experiences during the Vietnam war and their losses: the separation from family members, exile from home, the death of a child. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that Bui’s intent is not merely to document but to reconstruct, to revision, and finally, with deep care and compassion, to make her parents’ story truly part of her own.
To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses. Repetitions in particular rise instantly to the surface, and they give the translator particular pause when there is more than one way to translate a particular word. On the one hand, why not repeat a word the author has deliberately repeated? On the other hand, was the repetition deliberate? Regardless of the author’s intentions, the translator’s other ear, in the other language, opens the floodgates to other solutions.
When I began translating Domenico Starnone’s “Trust,” about a teacher, Pietro, who’s haunted by a secret that he confessed to a one-time lover, the Italian word that caught my ear was invece. It appears three times in the volcanic first paragraph and occurs a total of sixty-four times from beginning to end. Invece, which pops up constantly in Italian conversation, was a familiar word to me. It means “instead” and serves as an umbrella for words such as “rather,” “on the contrary,” “on the other hand,” “however,” and “in fact.” A compound of the preposition in and the noun vece—the latter means “place” or “stead”—it derives from the Latin invicem, which in turn is a compound of in and the noun vicis, declined as vice in the ablative case. When, after completing a first draft of my translation, I looked up vicis in a few Latin dictionaries, in both Italian and English, I found the following definitions: change, exchange, interchange, alternation, succession, requital, recompense, retaliation, place, office, plight, time, opportunity, event, and, in the plural, danger or risk.
But let’s move back to the Italian term, invece, of which Starnone seems either consciously or unwittingly fond. Functioning as an adverb, it establishes a relationship between different ideas. Invece invites one thing to substitute for another, and its robust Latin root gives rise in English to “vice versa” (literally, “the order being changed”), the prefix “vice” (as in the Vice-President, who must stand in for the President, if need be), and the word “vicissitude,” which means a passing from one state of affairs to the next. After investigating invece across three languages, I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel. For if Starnone’s “Ties” (2017) is an act of containment and his “Trick” (2018) an interplay of juxtaposition, “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution: an operation that not only permeates the novel’s arc but also describes the process of my bringing it into English. In other words, I believe that invece, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.
‘The Will to See” is a pugnacious little book—part reportage, part autobiographical manifesto—written by a man whose conscience is frozen in time. That judgment isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s a way of saying that the moral compass of its author, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, appears not to have been reset since he graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1971. Now 73, he was then an idealistic (even quixotic) 22-year-old with a degree in philosophy, “a young graduate with heart.” Living life as a cloistered intellectual seemed to him like “poison,” as did the prospect of working as a “servile technician” in the service of the academic establishment or the French state.
So he turned his back on the paths, cozy and conventional, that lay before him. He wasn’t alone in his rejection of life’s bourgeois roadmaps. Some of his classmates went to work in factories. Others slipped away “to stir up revolution” outside France. The political project that Mr. Lévy “chose”—his verb—was Bangladesh, where for several months he “endeavored to support the birth of a nation” that was fighting to secede from Pakistan in a harrowing civil war. He stayed on after the country won its independence. Working as an adviser, he counseled the fledgling government to treat as birangona—heroines—the 400,000 Bengali women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers.
Mr. Lévy’s account of his intellectual formation is littered with the names of French philosophers, poets, historians and economists, many of whom will be unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. Alongside this flurry of intellectual exotica, readers must grapple with such assertions as: “to those who would ask what an inner voice might mean, I recommend reading Kant”; or “the only worthwhile philosophy is one that places ethics over ontology.”
Mr. Lévy was persuaded to hurl himself into the Bangladesh maelstrom by two works that resonated with his youthful romanticism: Franz Fanon’s “scathing, seething, incendiary” book “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961)—a call for the violent overthrow of the world’s colonial order—and “Portrait of the Adventurer” (1950), by Roger Stéphane, a minor thinker who enjoyed some cachet after World War II, including the admiration of Jean-Paul Sartre. Stéphane urged the educated young of France to be men of action, and Mr. Lévy writes that his book “was in my pocket like a viaticum at the time of my departure for Bangladesh.”
Although Mr. Lévy is a prolific writer for Paris Match—which he describes as “the consummate mass-circulation, mass-retail magazine of sensational human-interest stories”—and an occasional contributor to The Wall Street Journal, he insists that he is not a journalist. His slant, he writes, “is the inverse of the journalist’s: I never set out on a reporting trip without the firm intention of intervening in what I see and changing what I show.”
. . . .
His dispatch from Bangladesh, which he revisited in March 2020, is a powerful essay that wastes no time on sterile objectivity. He describes the country, for which he professes enduring love, as the “front line of the planetary war against radical Islam, poverty, migratory chaos, and ecological cataclysm.”
. . . .
Mr. Lévy declares himself to be an “internationalist,” and this calling leads him “time and again to leave my family and embrace the cause of a people not my own.” Justice, he says, is “no different on one side of a border than on the other.” The title of one of his chapters is “Man Is Not a Local Adventure,” which is his way, one senses, of taking a kick at Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French politician of the nativist right who has said: “I prefer my daughter to my cousin, my cousin to my neighbor, my neighbor to my countrymen, and my countrymen to Europeans.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link that gets you to the article, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out another way around it.)
My book critic origin story is that I was nearly kicked out of A.P. English for not liking George Orwell’s “1984.” I found the prose stilted (I vaguely recall an invective I launched against his similes) and the overall project didactic. Of all things to be didactic about, I said — totalitarianism. How original — not liking totalitarianism; I mean it just sounds bad. My teacher was aghast (she loved his similes). I had to be transferred to another class.
Born on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the translator Bela Shayevich outright refused to read “1984”: “I had no interest in a book routinely deployed as a vaccine against communism. I was born in the Soviet Union: I didn’t need to hear it from an Englishman.” It was for this reason that she had not read the Russian science-fiction novel that is said to have inspired “1984” — WE (Ecco, paper, $16.99), by Yevgeny Zamyatin — now out in her translation.
When asked to take on “We,” Shayevich — best known for translating “Secondhand Time,” by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich — was surprised to learn that Zamyatin, and Orwell for that matter, was a committed socialist and, most important, a wickedly fun writer. Shayevich describes his style as emblematic of a “jagged and ruthlessly fat-free early Soviet aesthetic.” Though there have been numerous excellent translations of “We,” Shayevich’s best preserves the experimental qualities of Zamyatin’s writing. She subtly conveys from the Russian the jumpy texture that the narrator’s voice takes on as he becomes a kind of jammed robot, ecstatically malfunctioning as he falls in love with a sleek femme fatale, a rogue individualist with a “name” to match: I-330.
Set 1,000 years in the future, “We” transports us to an authoritarian society called the One State that is governed by technological efficiency and an enforced suppression of individual identity. The novel is the diary of D-503 (citizens of the One State have numbers, not names), lead engineer of a spaceship called Integral set to travel into outer space to rescue “unfamiliar beings on alien planets who may yet live in savage states of freedom.” The residents of the One State don identical gray uniforms and listen to machine-generated music: “A musicometer,” D-503 tells us, “can produce three sonatas an hour.” Monogamy is a vestige of ancient times (a.k.a. our times), and sex is arranged through a bureaucratic system involving pink tickets. “He’s registered to me today,” interjects D-503’s girlfriend O-90 when she sees him chatting with another woman.
A mathematician who hates imaginary numbers — “Get √−1 out of me!” he shrieks — D-503 is the golden boy of the One State.
British novelists excel at capturing the cut and thrust of a newsroom in a genre perhaps best described as the hack picaresque. Evelyn Waugh is its standard-bearer. His novel of 1938, “Scoop”, follows a man of modest means mistaken for a foreign correspondent and sent to a fictional country in east Africa. The tale is an outstanding satire of the media’s mores and its insatiable hunger for titbits and gossip.
“Making Nice”, Ferdinand Mount’s new novel, is clearly indebted to “Scoop” but updates its setting to the modern information age. Here news stories are written about social-media posts. Any middle-aged old-school reporters who aren’t dreaming up clickbait for meagre salaries have been tossed onto the slag heap, along with their obsolete fax machines.
The book’s protagonist is Dickie Pentecost, a diplomatic correspondent who has recently been made redundant. Like Waugh’s hero, William Boot, Dickie is swept up in a series of misadventures, this time in a digital world. Ethelbert (“Ethel” for short), the eccentric and mysterious panjandrum of Making Nice, a publicity agency, hires Dickie to participate in various schemes involving a corrupt African leader in exile, a Trump-like American politician and a pompous British mp who presses Dickie into service to ghostwrite his memoirs. The operating principle: make the greedy seem altruistic, and transmute tyrants into humanitarians, all in the name of “reputation retrieval”.
Mr Mount has a great ear for corporate doublespeak, used by Ethel to justify his company’s online skulduggery. When Dickie inquires about the company’s name, Ethel tells him that his mission is to “transform the System into a game you can’t help falling in love with”.Sure enough, Dickie’s daughter Flo is seduced by Ethel’s dazzling pitches and takes to writing fake positive reviews for clients (known as “astroturfing”) at his behest.
[T]he first five books I’ve published have all been my attempt to answer that question: how do we endure?
No surprise, TheBook of Job has always been my favorite part of the Bible. That tale of one man with a mountain of misfortune heaped upon him is one of the presiding spirits of my book. The epigraph of Macheteis the old Spanish proverb, “Dios apriete, pero no ahorca.” While the English equivalent is “God never gives you more than you can handle,” my literal translation strikes a different note: “God squeezes, but He doesn’t strangle.” As a survivor of childhood trauma, this question has been at the center of my art from day one. Not surprisingly, as a reader I’m drawn to books about survival in all its many forms. Here are a few books that kept me company while I wrote Machete, and a few that have made it onto my nightstand recently.
The poems of this collection chart how women navigate the violent waters of machismo without drowning. While she writes about women along the U.S. border with Mexico, these women could have just as easily been from my South Texas hometown. How these women find ways to thrive, and not merely survive, is nothing short of heroic.
She’s gripped Spain with her ultra-violent crime thrillers and was regarded by critics as the country’s answer to Italy’sreclusive novelist Elena Ferrante.
But now Carmen Mola has revealed her most stunning plot twist: she doesn’t exist, and her books are penned by three middle-aged men.
On Friday night the €1million Planeta prize was awarded to Mola, an author who until now had been presented as a female university professor writing under a pen name so she could remain anonymous.
But when the main prize at the ceremony was announced in the presence of King Felipe VI in Barcelona, three men stepped up to the podium – throwing the literary world into a state of confusion.
Agustín Martínez, Jorge Díaz and Antonio Mercero published novels and worked as scriptwriters under their real names before writing as Mola. Credits include work on TV series Central Hospital and Blind Date.
. . . .
Their lead character in the Mola novels is detective Elena Blanco, a police inspector with a fondness for karaoke, grappa and casual sex, according to publisher Penguin Random House.
The men, all in their 40s and 50s, denied choosing a female pseudonym to help sell the books. Mercero told Spanish newspaper El País. ‘I don’t know if a female pseudonym would sell more than a male one, I don’t have the faintest idea, but I doubt it.’
They previously claimed in interviews that Mola was a professor in her late 40s, telling Spanish ABC newspaper three years ago they needed anonymity to ‘protect a settled life that has nothing to do with literature’.
The plight of the high street bookshop, struggling against the power of the online giants, is a common complaint either side of the Atlantic. But not often do the prominent players, the authors and publishers, put their words into action and take a stand against the tide.
This month, Dave Eggers, the award-winning campaigning author, is to risk American sales of his new novel, The Every, by limiting access to the hardback copies. Only small bookstores will stock it.
It is a typical move for Eggers, who has long pushed back against the conventions of the industry, setting up his own non-profit publishing house, McSweeney’s, in 1998, two years before his breakout bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But it is also something that fits neatly with the subject of his new book. A sequel to his 2013 hit, The Circle, it is a dystopian satire, featuring a company that looks much like Amazon.
For the US release of the book, on Tuesday, Eggers will allow hardcover editions to go on sale only in small bookstores. Weeks later, Vintage, a division of Random House, will publish an e-book and a paperback version. Even then, customers won’t be able to buy the hardcover on Amazon.
Eggers’s maverick move has been met with great gratitude by America’s independent bookstore owners, who are struggling with the huge post-Covid shift to online services.
“It’s made us feel like the author and the publishing industry really care about the smaller stores,” said Laura Scott Schaefer, owner of Scattered Books in Chappaqua, New York. “It’s been hard to compete with the bigger retailers. Any small advantage we can get in any kind of space is great.”
Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and creator of the Miami book fair international, goes further. He believes Eggers is recognising “the important role independent booksellers play in the ecology of our literary culture”. Kaplan sees Eggers’s innovation as support for stores more than an attack on Amazon, which, after all, has had a negative impact on a wide range of other small businesses. The larger question for Kaplan is what would be lost if independent bookshops disappeared.
“You’d be losing a diversity of voices when you lose a diversity of sellers. The people who sell literature in a community help people to discover voices that might not otherwise be introduced,” he said.
Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to D for the tip.
PG just checked on Amazon (US) and the book is available for pre-order in Kindle, paperback and audiobook formats. It’s scheduled to release on November 16. As usual, no preview was available from Randy Penguin.
PG will let those with more information about sales of speculative fiction in hardback decide whether this heavily-promoted virtue-signalling will save any bookstores or not.
French lawmakers are coming to the defense of booksellers who continue to lose business to major retailers like Amazon with a law that would set a fixed minimum delivery rate for books.
The bill, which was presented before the National Assembly today (Sept. 29), is the latest move to even the playing field for independent booksellers, who face competition not only from Amazon, but also French online retailers such as Fnac and Cultura.
“Small booksellers face costs that are far away from those of major retailers,” Géraldine Bannier, the law’s sponsor, said before the National Assembly. In the age of Amazon, she argued, booksellers have to make a choice between eating the cost of delivery themselves or charging their customers, in which case they may risk losing a sale.
French bookshops have for years been protected by a 1981 law that mandated books be sold at a fixed price, and not be discounted at more than 5%. The National Assembly passed another law in 2014 forbidding online booksellers from giving a 5% discount or free delivery to customers, though Amazon fought back by setting delivery fees at just 1 cent.
. . . .
Ryan Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied how bookstores remain resilient despite Amazon competition, says that independent sellers tend to do well by “bringing people into physical spaces and creating spaces for conversation.” This has proven challenging for stores during the coronavirus pandemic, and some French sellers have suffered for it. The iconic Paris bookstore Gibert Jeune closed its doors in May.
No matter whether France’s law passes, Amazon will continue to take risks that independent booksellers cannot, Raffaelli says. The retailer is willing to be a “loss leader”—that is, sell products at a loss—because it can bring in revenue across other categories.
This approach paid off for the company between 2008 and 2018, when independent booksellers’ retail sales declined by an annual average of 3%, whereas e-commerce sites including Amazon and Apple boosted book sales by 5.6% and captured 16.5% of the French market, according to the SLF.
Still, Raffaelli says the latest French tactic is different from similar anti-competition lawsuits brought by US booksellers against Amazon because the legislation is underpinned by the belief that bookstores are not just a form of commerce, but a cultural product. Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot echoed the same belief after the law was passed by the French Senate in June, saying “a book is not a good like others.”
“When you think about a bookstore as a cultural product, that creates a different rationale for why you would protect an industry,” Raffaelli says. “If you truly believe that bookstores are a form of art and culture, then you can potentially approach how you regulate it differently than if it’s just about transaction and free trade.”
“As the U.S. counterpart to the UK’s Society of Authors (SOA), the Authors Guild fully supports today’s open letter from the SOA to all published writers asking them to request that their publishers provide cover credits for the people who translate their work, “ said Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, which earlier this year issued the first model publishing contract for literary translators.
“Translators play an irreplaceable role in creating a vibrant world literature and introducing new readers to important works by authors across the globe. Yet all too often they are overlooked when it comes to the publishing industry, viewed as neither authors nor editors. It is long past time that translators be acknowledged for their contributions by including their names on the book’s cover. That’s only the first step, however; translators should also receive royalties and a share of subsidiarity rights. We also urge both authors and publishers to hire more translators of color or from diverse backgrounds to better reflect and capture the unique perspectives they bring when translating a manuscript,” she added.
For too long, we’ve taken translators for granted. It is thanks to translators that we have access to world literatures past and present.
It is thanks to translators that we are not merely isolated islands of readers and writers talking amongst ourselves, hearing only ourselves.
Translators are the life-blood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it. They should be properly recognised, celebrated and rewarded for this. The first step towards doing this seems an obvious one. From now on we will be asking, in our contracts and communications, that our publishers ensure, whenever our work is translated, that the name of the translator appears on the front cover.
“We live in a world where everyone is a brand,” said Laura McNeill, a literary agent at Gleam Titles, which was set up by Abigail Bergstrom in 2016 as the literary arm of the influencer management and marketing company Gleam. Many of the UK’s biggest selling books of the last few years, from feminist illustrator Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty to Instagram cleaning phenomenon Mrs Hinch’s Hinch Yourself Happy, have been developed at the agency, and then sold for huge sums to traditional publishing houses.
Celebrity autobiographies and commercial non-fiction have existed for a long time. Gleam Titles’ modus operandi is more specific: it has a focus on “writers who are using social media and the online space to share their content in a creative and effective way”. The term “author”, for the clients with which McNeill and her colleagues work, may be just one part of a multi-hyphen career that also includes “Instagrammer”, “podcaster” or “business founder”. These authors – whose books will become part of their brands – therefore require a different kind of management to traditional literary writers. “I do think the move to having talent agencies with in-house literary departments comes from these sorts of talents being a bit more demanding,” McNeill said. “I don’t want to come across as if those clients are difficult. But they are different.”
The biggest draw for publishers bidding for books by influencers is that they have committed audiences ready and waiting. Gleam understands the importance of these figures: on its website, it lists authors’ Instagram and Twitter followings beneath their biographies. When publisher Fenella Bates acquired the rights for Hinch Yourself Happy in December 2018, she noted Sophie Hinchcliffe’s impressively quick rise on Instagram, having grown her following from 1,000 to 1.4 million in just six months. Upon publication in April 2019, the book sold 160,302 copies in three days, becoming the second fastest-selling non-fiction title in the UK (after the “slimming” recipe book Pinch of Nom).
Anyone who has harnessed such an audience to sell products, promote a campaign, or otherwise cultivate a successful personal brand is an exceptionally desirable candidate to a publisher that wants to sell books. What’s more, the mechanics of social media means the size of these audiences is easily measurable, making the authors “cast-iron propositions” for publishers, said Caroline Sanderson, the associate editor of the trade magazine the Bookseller, who has noticed a huge increase in the number of books written by social media stars over the last couple of years.
A spokesperson for Octopus Books, which published Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty in June 2020, suggested that a book deal can raise an influencer’s profile too. When the book was acquired, Given had approximately 100,000 followers on Instagram. “Her book was acquired because she was an exceptional writer, not because she was an influencer,” they said. “By the time it was announced, she had 150,000 followers and when the book was published her audience had jumped to circa 350,000 followers. As the book and its message grew, so did her audience.” Women Don’t Owe You Pretty has spent 26 weeks in the Sunday Times bestseller charts according to data from Nielsen BookScan, and, as of August 2021, has sold over 200,000 copies.
Translators are like ninjas. If you notice them, they’re no good.” This quote, attributed to Israeli author Etgar Keret, proliferates in memes, and who doesn’t love a pithy quote involving ninjas? Yet this idea – that a literary translator might make, at any moment, a surprise attack, and that at every moment we are deceiving the reader as part of an elaborate mercenary plot – is among the most toxic in world literature.
The reality of the international circulation of texts is that in their new contexts, it is up to their translators to choose every word they will contain. When you read Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights in English, the words are all mine. Translators aren’t like ninjas, but words are human, which means that they’re unique and have no direct equivalents. You can see this in English: “cool” is not identical to “chilly”, although it’s similar. “Frosty” has other connotations, other usages; so does “frigid”. Selecting one of these options on its own doesn’t make sense; it must be weighed in the balance of the sentence, the paragraph, the whole, and it is the translator who is responsible, from start to finish, for building a flourishing lexical community that is both self-contained and in profound relation with its model.
Since I began an MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa exactly 20 years ago, there have been numerous positive changes in the way translators are paid and perceived. Take the International Booker prize, which since 2016 has split the generous sum of £50,000 between author and translator, thereby genuinely recognising the work as a fundamentally collaborative entity that, like a child, needs two progenitors in order to exist.
Despite this type of extraordinary progress, there is ample room for improvement still. Often enough, translators receive no royalties – I don’t in the US for Flights – and a surprising number of publishers do not credit translators on the covers of their books. This is where the author’s name always goes; this is where you’ll find the title, too. People tend to be surprised when I mention this, but take another look at the International Booker, and you’ll see what I mean.
Since the 2016 launch of the redesigned prize, not one of the six winning works of fiction has displayed the translator’s name on the front. Granta didn’t name Deborah Smith there; Jonathan Cape didn’t name Jessica Cohen; Fitzcarraldo didn’t name me; Sandstone Press didn’t name Marilyn Booth; Faber & Faber didn’t name Michele Hutchison. At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, 2021’s winner from Pushkin Press, doesn’t name Anna Moschovakis on its cover, although its cover does display quotes from three named sources. Four names, in other words, on the cover of a book Moschovakis wrote every word of. But her name would have been too much.
The underlying assumption on the part of many publishers seems to be that readers don’t trust translators and won’t buy a book if they realise it’s a translation. Yet is it not precisely this type of ruse that breeds distrust, and not translation itself? What tends to encourage a reader to pick up an unfamiliar book is the thrilling feeling that they are about to embark upon an interesting journey with a qualified guide. In the case of translations, they get two guides for the price of one, an astonishing – an “astounding”, a “wonderful”, a “fantastic”, a “fabulous” – bargain.
When advance reading copies (ARCs) of Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You were sent out in May, there was a flurry of social media posts. A lucky selection of editors, writers and influencers flaunted their copies; others bemoaned not having been granted one. Soon listings for proof copies (which are clearly marked “not for resale”) started to appear on trading sites such as eBay and Depop. One copy, listed on eBay by a seller in North Carolina, sold in June for $209.16.Even the canvas tote bag that Rooney’s publicists had been sending out with the ARC copies was fetching prices in the region of $80.
As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, advance copies of popular and classic novels have long been collector’s items: a rare proof copy of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or classics by authors such as Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck can sell for up to £30,000, while Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, which will be published in October,sold earlier this month on eBay for £124.
But this high demand for ARCs of books that are yet to be published has only emerged recently, fuelled in part by the rise of book bloggers and influencers.
“Part of the purpose of proofs is to make people get to feel like they’re in an exclusive club,” said Adam Howard, who works for Scribe Publications. “But it happened with the Sally Rooney on a scale we’ve never seen before.”
Posting under hashtags such as #Galleybrag, Instagram influencers show off the advanced copies of novels to which they were granted access. Among these, Rooney’s forthcoming Beautiful World, Where Are You is by far the most prized. Given the social currency that a selfie with an advance copy of the novel can carry, Howard is not surprised that people are prepared to pay large sums to get their hands on it.
“When a book appears on social media months before official release, other bloggers and readers go mad for it,” said Dan Bassett, a Bristol bookseller and blogger who is regularly sent galley copies of forthcoming titles. “This has led to people selling them though market places, with others asking people like myself if I would sell it to them.”
However, the sale of ARCs is a legal grey area. Advance copies are clearly marked as not for sale, and publishers remain their legal owners. This means that technically, a publishing house could recall an ARC at any time – but this is largely unheard of. And since proofs of big releases have only recently become such a hot commodity, publishers have not traditionally had to police ARC sales stringently – and have generally been willing to turn a blind eye to a small number of proofs being sold in charity shops.
It’s not exactly a conspiracy theory, but if PG was hired to do some on-the-cheap promotion for an upcoming traditionally-published book, he might use a few social media accounts to do exactly what’s described in the OP, then have someone contact the Guardian books editor with a hot tip and some screenshots.
On the morning of March 1, 2017, Catherine Mörk and Linda Altrov Berg were in the offices of Norstedts, a book publisher in Sweden, when they received an unusual email. A colleague in Venice was asking for a top-secret document: the unpublished manuscript of the forth-coming fifth book in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series. The books, which follow hacker detective Lisbeth Salander, have sold more than 100 million copies. David Lagercrantz, another Swedish writer, had taken over the series after Larsson’s death, and his latest — The Man Who Chased His Shadow (later The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye )— was expected to be one of the publishing events of the year.
Norstedts was guarding the series closely. Lagercrantz wrote his first “Millennium” book on a computer with no connection to the internet and delivered the manuscript on paper, at which point Norstedts mailed a single copy to each of the book’s international publishers. With the new title, Norstedts wanted to streamline the process — Lisbeth Salander’s publisher, they figured, should be able to protect itself from hackers and thieves. Mörk and Altrov Berg, who handle foreign rights at Norstedts, consulted with other publishers of blockbuster books. The translators working on one of Dan Brown’s follow-ups to The Da Vinci Code, for instance, were required to work in a basement with security guards clocking trips to the bathroom. Norstedts decided to try sharing the new “Millennium” book via Hushmail, an encrypted-email service, with passwords delivered separately by phone. Everyone would have to sign an NDA.
The unusual email came from Francesca Varotto, the book’s Italian-edition editor, and arrived shortly after Norstedts sent out the manuscript:
Dear Linda and Catherine,
I hope you are well. Could you please re-send me the link to the manuscript of The Man Who Chased His Shadow?
Minutes later, and a few blocks away from Norstedts headquarters in Stockholm, Magdalena Hedlund, the agent representing the book, received a similar email from Varotto. It was strange that Varotto had lost something so valuable, but she and Hedlund were old friends, and the email struck a familiar tone. Plus everyone was scrambling: The book was set for release in 27 countries simultaneously, and the translators had to get started. Hedlund sent her friend the link to the manuscript.
Varotto replied instantly. “I’m sorry M,” she wrote. Varotto said that her password was “disabled/expired.” Could Hedlund send a new one?
Back at Norstedts, Mörk also received an email from Varotto. “Sorry Catherine,” the message read. “Could you please give me the Hushmail code?” Altrov Berg dashed off a separate message to Varotto, asking if everything was okay.
Suddenly, her phone rang. “Why are you sending me this?” Varotto asked. Altrov Berg explained what was happening. Varotto was confused. She hadn’t sent any emails to Norstedts all day.
With Varotto on the phone, the two Norstedts employees scrolled through the messages. The emails looked like ones Varotto would send: The text used the same font, and the signature at the end was styled just like hers. Then, with Varotto still on the line, Mörk got yet another email asking for the password.
They scanned the messages again. Only now did Varotto notice that the signature listed her old job title; she had been promoted two months earlier. The subject line also misspelled the name of her company. Finally, they realized the email address wasn’t hers at all: The domain had been changed from @marsilioeditori.it to @marsilioeditori.com.
Everyone deleted the emails. What other malicious tricks were lurking inside? The IT department at Marsilio Editori began investigating and found that the fraudulent domain had been created the day before through GoDaddy. It was registered to an address in Amsterdam and a Dutch phone number. When an employee tried calling, it went straight to a recording: “Thank you for calling IBM.”
The “Millennium” team was in a panic. The thief didn’t yet have the password, as far as they knew, but was clearly determined to get it. Publishers around the world depend on a best seller like this, and an online leak of the manuscript could derail its release.
But the book’s publication came and went without a hitch. The manuscript never reappeared. What was Fake Francesca Varotto after? Much more than Lisbeth Salander’s best-selling exploits, it turned out. On the same day as the “Millennium” emails, Fake Francesca asked someone else in publishing for an early look atLot, Bryan Washington’s story collection, as well as a debut novel about an accountant who becomes a fortune teller. Even stranger, the thief had other identities. Later that day, a fake Swedish editor went to the Wylie Agency in London to request a copy of Louise Erdrich’s just-announced novel, and someone pretending to be Peter van der Zwaag, a Dutch editor, asked a colleague in New York for the same fortune-teller book. Fake Peter then introduced his new assistant to request that she be added to a private mailing list filled with confidential publishing information. The assistant followed up with a friendly note: “It’s so busy and overwhelming now with the London Book Fair, isn’t it?” The assistant didn’t exist.
Link to the rest at Vulture and thanks to DM for the tip.
So now we know what Pointless creator Richard Osman has been up to behind that laptop: drawing on his passion for classic English crime fiction for his own attempt at the genre. When word got out it sparked a 10-way publishing auction, and the novel has become the fastest selling adult crime debut since records began.
That’s quite an achievement for what turns out to be an amiable if undemanding cosy caper. What marks it out is the originality of the setting, inspired by a visit Osman paid to an affluent retirement village boasting a full range of recreational and medical facilities including a “contemporary upscale restaurant”.
In the novel this becomes Cooper’s Chase, an exclusive development secreted on the Kentish weald: “You can’t move here until you’re over sixty-five and the Waitrose delivery vans clink with wine and repeat prescriptions every time they pass over the cattle grid”. Every Thursday the amateur sleuths of Cooper’s Chase gather in the jigsaw room, “between Art History and Conversational French”, to investigate unsolved murder cases that the Kent police force have been too incompetent to prosecute themselves.
Cooper’s Chase sits on the site of a former convent: now the developer, a brash vulgarian who owns a red grand piano, is exploiting a contractual loophole to turn the chapel and graveyard into eight new flats. Clearly he is not long for this world, and when somebody slips him a lethal injection in a scuffle, the Thursday Murder Club have a real life homicide on their hands.
It has become increasingly difficult to ignore our great capacity for experiencing and describing psychological pain. To many observers across the globe, mental illnesses and disorders are now alarmingly prevalent, and talk of crises, unprecedented surges and epidemics has become widespread amongst clinical experts and in the media. Living through a viral pandemic and enforced lockdowns has further concentrated attention on mental wellbeing. Conversations about emotional health proliferate. As with the cliché about the Eskimo words for snow, our abundant vocabulary testifies to the variety and intractability of our disturbances, and also to our enduring need to work through them with language.
This phenomenon has deep roots. Sadness, anxiety, lethargy, dejection, discontentment, torpor, perplexity, horror, shame, suspicion, anguish, diffidence, weariness, languishing, misanthropy, despair: such emotions and dispositions live in our present, but they have long been observed in human nature. Four hundred years ago, surveying a world that had evidently succumbed to similar debilitating passions, the Oxford scholar Robert Burton declared an epidemic of melancholy. In his view, melancholy had become “a disease so frequent… in our miserable times, as few there are that feel not the smart of it.” For Burton, who himself suffered from melancholy, the condition was then “so grievous” and “so common,” that he felt compelled to “show the causes, symptoms and several cures” of “so universal a malady, an Epidemical disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and mind.”
The result was The Anatomy of Melancholy, unquestionably the greatest work on this subject in English literature. It is a book that guides its reader through the territory with wit, compassion and curiosity. Its many admirers over the centuries have included John Milton, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip Pullman, Patrick Keiller and Nick Cave.
As befits its subject matter, the Anatomy is enormous. By the time of the sixth edition, published posthumously in 1651, Burton’s sprawling masterpiece had expanded to more than half a million words. It also included over 13,000 quotations, drawn from learned and popular sources stretching back to antiquity, illustrating and lamenting our psychological dispositions, self-destructive passions and moral pathologies, surveying the causes and consequences of our curious susceptibility to melancholy, and offering a bewildering range of possible cures.
Anyone encountering Burton’s book for the first time today will be struck by its idiosyncrasies. It is both serious and humorous. The main subject is medical, but the subtitle signals that melancholy will also be treated “philosophically and historically.” It opens with an extended satire, in which the laughing (possibly unhinged?) philosopher Democritus Junior ridicules the madness of the world. He doesn’t spare the reader: “Thou thyself art the subject of my discourse.” The main treatise then applies the structure of medical pathology—kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, cures—to different forms of melancholy. This structure, however, incorporates a variety of different kinds of writing, including poetry, history, moral philosophy, theology, geography, astrology and mythology. Despite attempts to assign the book to a specific genre, it resists categorisation.
Burton’s personality is stamped on every page, in prose that is eccentric and unmistakable: conversational, expansive, expressive and frequently digressive. Many sentences end only with an “et cetera,” suggesting that more could always follow—and in later editions often did. The text is punctuated with splenetic outbursts (especially against Burton’s pet hate, the idle aristocracy), but these are often accompanied by self-doubt and self-reproach: “Thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself.”
hose summer reading lists. Just when you start to see the arrival of some new books on China’s bestselling fiction charts as we did in June, the curriculum-driven course recommendations take over and we’re looking once more at classics of the classroom.
You’ll find they include Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Crag from China Youth Press (moving up 13 spots to No. 1); To Live by Yu Hua from Beijing October Art & Literature Publishing House (at No. 2); and The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin from Chongqing Publishing House (at No. 3).
Additional familiar titles from the reading list includeDream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (People’s Literature Publishing House), which was powered 10 spots up the list to No. 7 by the syllabi provided by the school system. And here’s Water Margin by Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong (People’s Literature Publishing House); Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (another from the People’s Literature Publishing House); and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder in a new edition ( The Writers’ Publishing House).
Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.
A few months earlier a friend asked how my dad was doing with his loss of memory. I told her he lives strictly in the present, unburdened by the past, free of expectations for the future. Forecasting based on previous experience, which is believed to be of evolutionary significance as well as one of the origins of storytelling, no longer plays a part in his life.
“So he doesn’t know he’s mortal,” she concluded. “Lucky him.”
Of course, the picture I painted for her is simplified. It is dramatized. The past still plays a part in his conscious life. He relies on the distant echo of his considerable interpersonal skills to ask anyone he meets a series of safe questions: “How is everything?” “Where are you living these days?” “How are your people?” Occasionally he’ll venture an attempt at a more ambitious exchange and become disoriented in the middle of it, losing the thread of the idea or running out of words. The puzzled expression on his face, as well as the embarrassment that crosses it momentarily, like a puff of smoke in a breeze, betrays a past when conversation was as natural to him as breathing. Creative, funny, evocative, provocative conversation. Being a great conversador was almost as highly regarded among his oldest group of friends as being a good writer.
The future is also not completely behind him. Often at dusk he asks, “Where are we going tonight? Let’s go out to a fun place. Let’s go dancing. Why? Why not?” If you change the subject enough times, he moves on.
He recognizes my mother and addresses her as Meche, Mercedes, La Madre, or La Madre Santa. There were a few very difficult months not long ago when he remembered his lifelong wife but considered the woman in front of him claiming to be her to be an impostor.
“Why is she here giving orders and running the house if she is nothing to me?”
My mother reacted to this with anger.
“What is wrong with him?” she asked in disbelief.
“It’s not him, Mom. It’s dementia.” She looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one. Surprisingly, that period passed, and she regained her proper place in his mind as his principal companion. She is the last tether. His secretary, his driver, his cook, who have all worked in the house for years, he recognizes as familiar and friendly people who make him feel safe, but he no longer knows their names. When my brother and I visit, he looks at us long and hard, with uninhibited curiosity. Our faces ring a distant bell, but he cannot make us out.
“Who are those people in the next room?” he asks a housekeeper.
“Really? Those men? Carajo. That’s incredible.”
There was an uglier period a couple of years earlier. My father was fully aware of his mind slipping away. He asked for help insistently, repeating time and time again that he was losing his memory. The toll of seeing a person in that state of anxiety and having to tolerate their endless repetitions over and over and over again is enormous. He would say, “I work with my memory. Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it. Help me,” and then he would repeat it in one form or another multiple times an hour for half an afternoon. It was grueling. That eventually passed. He regained some tranquility and would sometimes say, “I’m losing my memory, but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it,” or “Everyone treats me like I’m a child. It’s good that I like it.”
Digital books on tablets, smartphones, and devices like Amazon’s Kindle are certainly convenient, but according to a new survey most people still prefer a good old fashioned paper book. There’s just something satisfying about turning the page and holding a physical book in one’s hands, as over two-thirds of adults say they always opt for a real book over digital reading.
Put together by Oxfam, researcher polled 2,000 respondents in the United Kingdom regarding their thoughts on paper books versus digital books. Close to half (46%) enjoy physically turning pages and 42 percent prefer the feel of a physical book in their hands. One in four say they love the smell of paper books. Meanwhile, another 32 percent feel like they become much more immersed in the story while reading a paper book and 16 percent go for traditional books because they remind them of libraries.
. . . .
Interestingly, over a third of respondents (35%) enjoy buying paper books because that allows them to proudly display them on their bookshelf as a background during Zoom meetings.
All in all, only 16 percent of adults prefer digital books and a meager eight percent who favor audio books. On average, the survey finds most adults own 49 books and read for three hours per week.
“People prefer to read physical books because they offer something more tangible and grounded. There’s something that can feel more “permanent” about real books over digital formats,” says Dr. Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, in a statement. “Reading offers us a form of escapism. It provides us with a break from our everyday lives, and often also, an opportunity to learn something new and expand our minds.”
. . . .
Three-quarters say they’re considering donating books they’ve finished and 72 percent usually buy used books themselves. Moreover, this research suggests that books are the top item most adults are willing to buy used. Seventy-one percent say they buy used books because it is cheaper and 52 percent do it because it is better for the environment.
Hong Kong’s national-security police arrested five people for allegedly conspiring to commit sedition through a series of picture books that portray sheep being targeted by wolves—an allusion to China’s crackdown on pro-democracy supporters in the city.
Hours after police detained five members of a speech therapists’ union, police displayed three illustrated books that they say incited hatred against the government among children as young as four. The cartoons simplified “political issues that kids wouldn’t comprehend and beautifies criminal activities,” Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah told a news conference. “They’re meant to poison the minds of children,” he said.
Described as teaching aids, the books were distributed through pro-democracy businesses, local political offices and online by the speech therapists’ union, which was founded in November 2019—a time when some activists formed workers’ groups as a way to organize protest actions against the government.
The books include one titled “The Guardians of Sheep Village,” which is set against the backdrop of antigovernment protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. It depicts a malicious plot by the wolves to take over the sheep’s village and devour them all.
Another, “12 Warriors of Sheep Village,” refers to a dozen activists who were caught by the Chinese coast guard during an ill-fated boat escape from Hong Kong last year. The third book in the series, titled “Street Cleaners of Sheep Village,” alludes to a medical workers’ strike last year when Hong Kong faced its first coronavirus infections imported from China, using cartoons of littering wolves to portray outsiders.
. . . .
Thursday’s arrests are part of an intensifying crackdown on dissent in the former British colony and were made on the same day that four former executives and journalists of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily appeared in court charged with violating the national-security law by conspiring to collude with external forces. Apple Daily, founded by jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai, was forced to cease publication last month after authorities seized its assets.
. . . .
Publishers have been among the targets of authorities since the national-security law was imposed last year. Media groups and opposition groups have raised concerns that free speech is being eliminated and so-called red lines about what amounts to a crime are being expanded to eliminate criticism of authorities.
“Even children’s picture books cross the red line,” Herbert Chow, a local businessman who supports the protest movement, wrote in a Facebook post referring to the arrests.
The five people arrested—two men and three women, aged between 25 and 28 years old—are board members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists. They were detained under a colonial-era antisedition law rather than the security law imposed by China.
In its online mission statement, the union says it has chosen to align itself with the politically marginalized. “We are a group of speech therapists, we should walk with the unheard,” it said on its website. “Those who are lucky won’t understand that being able to speak is a luxury. But we resonate with this.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
Despite what’s described as lingering difficulties in “large-scale distribution,” the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE) today (July 13) is reporting strong book-sale growth in the first six months of this year, both in units and in revenue.
According to analyses conducted by AIE’s research department based on NielsenIQ data, between January 4 and June 20, some 15 million more copies of printed books were sold, a 44-percent jump over the same time period’s sales in 2020. This encompasses all trade book channels, including bookstores, both online and physical, and large-scale distribution, with the exception of schoolbooks.
Even more significant, media messaging from AIE in Milan points out, is the growth compared to 2019, prior to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival. By comparison to the first half of 2019, 11 million more copies of books were sold January to June this year, an increase of 31 percent.
I happen to have, by chance, a small library of books about books, including a collection of guides to book collecting. They tend to advise the collector to choose a particular subject — a period, movement, theme, an author — early on in a collecting career, something I have singularly failed to do. They also advise collectors to attend book auctions, to inspect booksellers’ catalogues and only to buy the best — I don’t do that either. Like most normal people, my main source and supply of books (including books about books) has always been among the dross and dreck to be found in secondhand bookshops in unfashionable provincial towns — which is probably what makes the novelist Nicholas Royle’s White Spinesseem both so thrillingly familiar and so utterly refreshing.
It’s not a book about the world of grand auction houses and expensive signed editions. It’s an account of how, at some point — around the mid-1990s — Royle decided to start collecting ‘every single B-format Picador paperback published between 1972 and 2000, when the publisher abandoned its commitment to the white spine with black lettering in a more or less uniform style’. He currently has 959 Picadors in his ‘main collection’, including reissues and rejacketed titles, most of them picked up for a couple of quid in unprepossessing bookshops up and down the country.
It’s not exactly a history of Picador, though we certainly learn a lot about the imprint, launched by Pan Books in 1972 by Sonny Mehta. Nor is it exactly a memoir, though there are plenty of details about Royle’s time as a student and his work for Time Out, his teaching and his running of his own small press, Nightjar. There’s mention of a divorce, a new relationship and children — all subtly tipped in, or interleaved, in chapters about various Picador-related matters, including descriptions of book covers.If you think authors are really only interested in writing, Gekoski will quickly disavow you of the notion
What keeps this assortment of reflections and reminiscences hanging together is Royle’s delightful accounts of his trips to charity and secondhand bookshops across the UK: Goldmark Books in Uppingham; George Kelsall Booksellers in Littleborough; Southend; Coventry; Wigtown in Scotland. Over the years, Royle has been everywhere. White Spines is a sort of Bill Bryson for book lovers, wry, cosy and full of amusing asides and lovely cameos.
But the question remains, why? Well, Royle is clearly temperamentally a collector, on a limited budget, which makes £3 charity shop paperbacks the perfect buy. And he collects poetry magazines — also things no one else really wants — and bread labels: ‘You know those little plastic adhesive ties you get around the end of the plastic bag your supermarket loaf comes in? With the best before date on?’ (He sticks them inside his cupboards.) He’s just that sort of bloke. But there’s something else:“If I could just acquire a few more Picadors … I’d have a bookcase, a white bookcase no less, full of white-spined Picadors. It would be a thing of beauty. It would be a small masterpiece, and it would be easier to achieve than the masterpieces I was trying to create at my desk in the attic.
Collecting books as a distraction — a displacement, an alternative — from actually writing books. Sounds familiar.
‘I wonder if I might not be the Ronnie Corbett of Contemporary Letters,’ Royle asks himself. (He’s pictured on the dust-jacket wearing large Corbettesque glasses.) ‘And if that’s the case, who is my Ronnie Barker?’ Anyone of a certain age with mild literary proclivities will fondly remember many of the Picador titles he discusses — Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. Which makes us all Barkers to his Corbett.
The great, renowned rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski is another sort of character entirely. He’s like something out of a Raymond Chandler. In Guarded by Dragons he relates the story of one particularly fraught book-related negotiation: ‘The call ended there. I put the phone down, and lit a cigar. “Son of a bitch!” I said in a very loud voice, as I put my feet up on my desk, and said it again.’ He is not a man to be messed with: ‘They might suppose me clever, self-satisfied and disputatious, rich and aggressive, as the clichés demand, but to these putative qualities I would add “relentless”.’
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Guarded by Dragons is indeed relentless — and clever and self-satisfied and disputatious — which makes it an absorbing read, like listening to your favourite uncle regale you with tales of life and work back in the day when men were men and book dealers were cigar-chomping buccaneers, ready to go to battle at the slightest hint of a rare first edition. The book’s title relates to Gekoski’s sense of having spent a lifetime on a great adventure: ‘There’s something enticing and valuable out there, the intrepid hunter-dealer seeks it out, but it is guarded by a jealous owner-dragon, and other hunters are circling.’
Gekoski’s tales from 50 years on the front line of rare-book dealing — his encounters with writers, institutions and fellow dealers — make the whole business sound like such fun that one is tempted to take it up oneself, not least because the barrier to entry seems so low ‘There are only two things a rare-book dealer must know: at what price is a book buyable and at what higher price one might sell it.’ Alas, it’s not quite as simple as that. In order to succeed you’ve got to be a bit like Rick.
He tells how he gave up a secure academic teaching position to pursue book dealing, starting out with a few D.H. Lawrence first editions, until eventually he ended up handling entire archives, jetting around, smoking cigars, fine-dining, drinking and generally wheeling and dealing across continents at the highest level. You’ve got some original documents relating to the Balfour Declaration? You need to quickly offload some Ulysses first editions? Or you’re Rachel Cusk, looking to sell your archive? Rick’s your man.
The byline at the top of this piece reads MA Sieghart, not Mary Ann. Why? Because I really want men to read it too. Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.
For my book The Authority Gap, which looks at why women are still taken less seriously than men, I commissioned Nielsen Book Research to find out exactly who was reading what. I wanted to know whether female authors were not just deemed less authoritative than men, but whether they were being read by men in the first place. And the results confirmed my suspicion that men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.
For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.
In other words, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top 10 who had the biggest male readership – the thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to accord equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?
Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership that is only 21% male. Male fellow Booker prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have nearly twice as many (39% and 40%). It’s not as if women are less good at writing literary fiction. All five of the top five bestselling literary novels in 2017 were by women, and nine of the top 10. And it’s not as if men don’t enjoy reading books by women when they do open them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating men give to books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for books by men, it’s 3.8.
Turning to nonfiction, which is read by slightly more men than women, the pattern is similar, though not quite so striking. Men still read male authors much more than female ones, but the discrepancy isn’t so large because women tend to do the same in favour of female authors. But there is still quite a difference. Women are 65% more likely to read a nonfiction book by the opposite sex than men are. All this suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, don’t accord female authors as much authority as male ones. Or they make the lazy assumption that women’s books aren’t for them without trying them out to see whether this is true.
Why does this matter? For a start, it narrows men’s experiences of the world. “I’ve known this for a very long time, that men just aren’t interested in reading our literature,” the Booker prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo told me in an interview for The Authority Gap. “Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore narrative, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we’re writing women’s stories, we’re talking about the experiences of women. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think that it’s very damning and it’s extremely worrying.”
If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.
As PG examines his own reading habits, he believes that he doesn’t care whether a book is written by a woman or a man. In many cases when he hears something about a book that makes it sound like he is likely to enjoy it, he may not even pay attention to the author’s name.
(PG understands that many people, especially authors, will feel that PG’s lack of attention to the author’s name is exceedingly disagreeable and even worse than it would normally be since he has and does represent a number of authors, but it’s an old habit that long predated him marrying an author or representing any. If he’s going to point to the source of this habit, he’ll mention a childhood lived largely in book deserts a long way from any libraries in a family which owned a few books, but couldn’t afford to buy any new ones very often. Under those circumstances, PG read any book he could get his hands on that was not vastly above his reading abilities. Rereading books he liked several times was something he always did as well. He read the poem, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes so many times that he still remembers most of it from memory.)
As an adult, when PG finds an author of any gender he likes, he tends to read every book the author wrote. Dorothy Sayers comes to mind as an example as does Vera Brittain on the prose side and poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson.
Plus almost everything J.K. Rowling has written and close to everything that Barbara Tuchman published, including The Guns of August, The Zimmerman Telegram, Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1914. (Listing Ms. Tuchman’s books has made PG realizes that he wants to reread all of them again.
s the car with the blacked-out windows came to a halt in a sidestreet near Tübingen’s botanical gardens, keen-eyed passersby may have noticed something unusual about its numberplate. In Germany, the first few letters usually denote the municipality where a vehicle is registered. The letter Y, however, is reserved for members of the armed forces.
Military men are a rare, not to say unwelcome, sight in Tübingen. A picturesque 15th-century university town that brought forth great German minds including the philosopher Hegel and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, it is also a modern stronghold of the German Green party, thanks to its left-leaning academic population. In 2018, there was growing resistance on campus against plans to establish Europe’s leading artificial intelligence research hub in the surrounding area: the involvement of arms manufacturers in Tübingen’s “cyber valley”, argued students who occupied a lecture hall that year, brought shame to the university’s intellectual tradition.
Yet the two high-ranking officials in field-grey Bundeswehr uniforms who stepped out of the Y-plated vehicle on 1 February 2018 had travelled into hostile territory to shake hands on a collaboration with academia, the like of which the world had never seen before.
The name of the initiative was Project Cassandra: for the next two years, university researchers would use their expertise to help the German defence ministry predict the future.
The academics weren’t AI specialists, or scientists, or political analysts. Instead, the people the colonels had sought out in a stuffy top-floor room were a small team of literary scholars led by Jürgen Wertheimer, a professor of comparative literature with wild curls and a penchant for black roll-necks.
After the officers had left, the atmosphere among Wertheimer’s team remained tense. A greeting gift of camouflage-patterned running tops and military green nail varnish had helped break the ice, but there was outstanding cause for concern. “We’d been unsure about whether to go public over the project,” recalls Isabelle Holz, Wertheimer’s assistant. The university had declined the opportunity to be formally involved with the defence ministry, which is why the initiative was run through the Global Ethic Institute, a faculty-independent institution set up by the late dissident Catholic, Hans Küng. “We thought our offices might get paint-bombed or something.”
They needn’t have worried. “Cassandra reaches for her Walther PPK” ran the headline in the local press after the project was announced, a sarcastic reference to James Bond’s weapon of choice. The idea that literature could be used by the defence ministry to identify civil wars and humanitarian disasters ahead of time, wrote the Neckar-Chronik newspaper, was as charming as it was hopelessly naive. “You have to ask yourself why the military is financing something that is going to be of no value whatsoever.”
In the end, the launch of Project Cassandra saw neither paint bombs nor sit-ins. The public, Holz says, “simply didn’t take us seriously. They just thought we were mad.”
Charges of insanity, Wertheimer says, have forever been the curse of prophets and seers. Cassandra, the Trojan priestess of Greek myth, had a gift of foresight that allowed her to predict the Greek warriors hiding inside the Trojan horse, the death of Mycenaean king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and her lover, the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, and her own demise. Yet each of her warnings was ignored: “She’s lost her wits,” says Clytaemestra in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, before the chorus dismiss her visions as “goaded by gods, by spirits vainly driven, frantic and out of tune”.
Russian book publishers have reported a significant increase in production costs this year, describing a substantial level of pressure on their business. Book-price increases and production cuts appear to be likely, as a result.
The key challenge is in a shortage of offset-print paper in the domestic market and a sharp rise in paper prices.
The cost of paper is reported to have risen by some 10 percent to 80,000 rubles per unit (US$1,100).
Russia was acknowledged in November in an article by Oliver Yorke for the non-profit Earth.org to hold 23 percent of the world’s forested land. At some 814 million hectares (2.1 billion acres), rapid deforestation has alarmed environmentalists who cite longtime trends in illegal logging and confused classification of land tracts (as forested or agricultural).
Despite the wealth of forest resources, Russia’s book market traditionally has imported 80 percent of its paper from abroad. Prior to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, most paper products were supplied to Russia by China and member-states of the European Union.
Reports indicate, however, that for the last year—since mid-2020—the volume of such supplies getting into Russia has declined amid border closures and other elements of contagion spread-mitigation measures and regulations.
That reduction of paper imports has had a negative effect on the Russian book market, executives say, and has led to shutdowns among some localized publishing companies.
. . . .
Konstantin Lun, production director of the Moscow-based business-book publisher Alpina, says to Publishing Perspectives that the current situation in the market is complex.
“Our fears are confirmed,” he says, “as a shortage of offset paper and a significant increase of prices for it has already led to a rise in the cost of books. Of course, that jump in price is a very serious problem for the industry, but in the end, it will be passed on to the customer.
“In any case, it creates an increased risk level for a publisher.”
Tatiana Doroshina, director of the Molodaya Gvardiya (“Young Guard”) publishing house—a specialist in fiction and popular science—echoes the urgency Lun refers to.
“In addition to the increase in prices for printing services and materials which primarily took place at the end of 2020,” Doroshina says, “our colleagues at the printing houses at the end of March this year sent us letters warning of a sharp, unpredictable increase in prices for materials and especially for paper and cardboard.
“So far, the cost of producing books in domestic printing houses has increased by 20 to 22 percent.”
. . . .
An interesting take on the paper shortage issue surfaces in talking with publishers who point to an overall drop in demand for i in the international marketplace, something that could reflect the widely observed “digital acceleration” of consumers’ adoption of electronic-reading formats during the 2020 pandemic year.
In Russia, pulp and paper mills are have seen dwindling profits, triggering higher prices for what does get sold, say publishers.
According to publishers, Russian book prices may see a hike of as much as 10 percent.
In the late 16th century, rumors of an impending pogrom swirl around the Jewish ghetto. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague and an expert in the Kabbalah capable of bringing life to inanimate forms, decides to protect his community with a golem, a figure made from earth and animated through religious ritual. Golems do not speak and do not think for themselves. They have super strength, a dogmatic allegiance to their creator, and little else. In other words: they are perfect bodyguards. Under the cover of night, the Maharal gathers clay from the Vltava river to build a humanoid figure. When Rabbit Loew carves “emet,” the Hebrew word for “truth” on the golem’s forehead, his work is done; the golem is alive. The golem curbs the violent threats against the Jewish ghetto and serves as a valuable handyman for its neighbors, completing chores and fetching water. However, the creature loses discipline. It runs amok, threatening the community it was created to defend. Rabbi Loew must destroy his monster. To do so, he erases the first letter of “emet,” leaving “met,” meaning “dead.”
The Golem of Prague is perhaps the most famous story of the golem, but Jewish people have crafted golems—in stories, at least—since long before the 16th century. Our clay creatures wind their way through religious texts, stories of rabbis, and Jewish folklore.
These tales aren’t always by Jewish writers and artists. German-Christian writers throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s examined Jewish communities and their golems. Famously, The Brothers Grimm include an iteration of the golem tale in their collected stories. In this version, the rabbi who creates the golem is killed, suffocated by the falling clay of his monster.
Once you know the monster you are looking for, golems are everywhere.
But why? All things considered, golems are rather unassuming monsters. They are (canonically speaking) not very flashy; the word “golem” is used in modern Hebrew to mean dumb or helpless. And as far as Jewish representation goes, the golem’s unintelligent and potentially destructive nature directly contrasts with Judaism’s focus on learning, wisdom, and religious law. Yet even today, golems lurch through pages of novels, movie screens, and video games. In Prague, the legend of the golem thrives: Golem Biscuits cafe bakes golem cookies, nearly every gift store sells posters of Rabbi Loew and his golem strolling through cobblestone streets. And the appearance of golems in recent literature and media allows us to explore both experiences of Jewishness and popular perceptions of Jewish culture.
. . . .
In Jewish diasporic writing, the golem appears during moments of crisis: the pogroms of the 16th century, the heavy flow of Jewish immigration to the U.S. during the 1800s, and the Holocaust. The golem, it seems, is needed at points of crisis to alleviate Jewish pain.
Golems present a powerful model for Jewish resistance against antisemitic violence, especially in historical novels. In Alice Hoffman’s 2019 novel The World That We Knew, Jewish parents seek the help of a rabbi to create a golem to defend their daughter, Lea, against Nazi terror. Hoffman introduces golems as nearly omnipotent: communing with fish and birds, seeing the future, and speaking with the dead. It is necessary to kill the golem once it has fulfilled its purpose. The rabbi’s daughter accepts the task and builds a golem from river mud and menstrual blood. Hoffman’s golem is named Ava, “reminiscent of Chava, the Hebrew word for life,” signifying both Ava’s new life and the continued existence that Ava’s protection grants Lea.
In September 2017, David Simon, creator of The Wire, tweeted a photograph of golfers calmly lining up their putts on an Oregon course as wildfires raged in the background. “In the pantheon of visual metaphors for America today, this is the money shot,” he wrote of the picture, which was taken by an amateur photographer who spotted the photo-op as she was about to skydive out of a plane. Everything about this story – the image, the circumstances – seems stranger than fiction.
A year before Simon’s tweet, in a landmark polemic, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh had questioned why so few writers – himself included – were tackling the world’s most pressing issue in their fiction. But now, as extreme weather swirls around the globe, melting glaciers, burning forests, flooding districts and annihilating species, the climate emergency has brought the unimaginable into our daily lives and literature. A survivor in Jessie Greengrass’s haunting new novel The High House sums it up: “The whole complicated system of modernity which had held us up, away from the earth, was crumbling … and we were becoming again what we had used to be: cold, and frightened of the weather, and frightened of the dark. Somehow while we had all been busy, while we had been doing those small things which added up to living, the future had slipped into the present.”
. . . .
Greengrass is among a growing number of novelists who are confronting this unfolding catastrophe through the young genre of climate fiction – or “cli-fi”. Among the new arrivals are the Irish writer Niall Bourke, whose novel Line conjures the Boschian image of refugees queueing for generations in an arid land; and Bethany Clift, whose Last One at the Party is the diary of an unnamed thirtysomething who decides to revel her way to the end, as the sole survivor of a pandemic. In August, Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun will take us to a climate-ravaged near-future California. And in September, Anthony Doerr will follow his Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See with Cloud Cuckoo Land, set between 15th-century Constantinople, Idaho in 2020 and space some time in the future. Doerr has said of the book: “The world we’re handing our kids brims with challenges: climate instability, pandemics, disinformation. I wanted this novel to reflect those anxieties, but also offer meaningful hope.”
So what has changed since Ghosh published The Great Derangement? “I think that the world has changed us, and the inflection point was 2018,” he says now. “It was partly because there were so many extreme climate events that year – the California wildfires, flooding in India, a succession of brutal hurricanes – but partly also because of the publication of Richard Powers’s The Overstory.”
This is a big claim to make for a novel. His point, says Ghosh, is not just about the book itself, but the welcome it received (including being shortlisted for the Booker prize). “It wasn’t hived off into the usual silos of climate change or speculative fiction, but was treated as a mainstream novel. I do think that was a very major thing. Since then, there’s been an outpouring of work in this area. In my own personal inbox, I get two or three manuscripts a day.”
Harry Potter online home Wizarding World has launched has launched a free virtual hub for the school summer holidays.
Called Harry Potter Reading Magic, it is billed as “a destination to discover more about the exciting story and themes of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury) and have some fun along the way”.
The initiative sits alongside Bloomsbury’s rescheduled seventh annual Harry Potter Book Night on 24th June, with fans all over the world joining in magical events and activities themed around Diagon Alley.
With the new hub, over five weeks, young audiences will be able to get to know more about the iconic characters of J K Rowling’s books alongside chapter challenges, quizzes, craft activities and weekly themes.
Housing easy to follow tips, the Harry Potter Reading Magic hub will also feature handy and helpful guides for parents, carers and teachers. This content comes from a partnership between all Harry Potter publishers, including Bloomsbury in the UK, Scholastic in the US and Pottermore publishing.
The initiative is set to become an annual fixture. It follows the success of the Harry Potter At Home hub launched by Wizarding World for lockdown during 2020, which attracted more than seven million visitors.
Additionally, the first Harry Potter audiobook is available to stream free on Alexa from Audible beginning on 23rd June and throughout the month of July by saying: “Alexa, read Harry Potter Book One.”
Inspiration as an author can come in many forms. It can be an event that once happened or a person you know or have read about, it can even be an experience you yourself have had that manifests itself into a scene for your next book. All it takes is a grain of sand caught in the folds of your brain to work itself into a gleaming pearl.
I had many inspirations when writing my recently released New York Times bestselling historical fiction, The Last Bookshop in London. But then, it’s so easy to draw ideas from history with its powerful impact and incredible stories.
The event which really began to spin the idea for my story was the bombing of Paternoster Row. This particular area of London is known for its history in the book trade that dates back to the 17th century when the area was wiped out by the Great Fire of London. The book publishing industry rose from the ashes like a literary phoenix and publishers and booksellers continued to flock to Paternoster Row.
During WWII, however, when the Nazis bombed London for seven months straight during the Blitz, Paternoster Row received a direct hit. Countless bombs and incendiaries rained down on the publishing district and reduced it to rubble and ash with a fire that took days to fully extinguish.
This attack resulted in the destruction of over 5 million books. It was a heartbreaking loss made all the more devastating in light of the paper ration which prevented more books from being printed to replace the ones that were lost. As a book lover, this struck me in the heart. But through incredible loss can come the greatest hope and that inspired the bookshop where I had Grace work for Mr. Evans.
As far as characters go, I received most of my inspiration from the Mass Observation. This was an initiative funded by the men who came up with the concept where hundreds of people were paid to record their daily life in journals and diaries before, during and after the war. It was a truly unique opportunity to have an inside look into the lifestyle of the time as well as how the daily bombings affected the overall mindset.
But in reading those detailed accounts, characters began to take shape in my mind. The naysayer who always had an opinion (like Mr. Pritchard), the woman who unexpectedly finds purpose in her war efforts (like Viv) and then there is Colin’s character who is an especially dear one to me.
He came to me after one entry I read where a mother lamented over her son who was being conscripted into the military and was scheduled to depart the following day. She observed his gentleness with the family dog (one he had saved, cared for and kept as a boy) and went on to bemoan how tender-souled men are not meant for war. It was a heartbreaking observation and one I wanted to push forefront in my story. I wanted to highlight those men forced into war when their spirits were never meant for battle.
While one of the main tenets of Amplified Publishing at this point is that we don’t yet know exactly what we mean when we say the phrase, Kate Pullinger does know what her key interest is in this, her latest project in exploring creativity and technology.
“Creative work, yes,” she says, “but also the bottom line. I’m interested in helping creators in the broad publishing sector figure out how to earn a living.”
. . . .
What Amplified Publishing is trying to discern is how creative forms could be developed to reach audiences through technologically enriched means. What has the emergence of Zoom and Teams and other platforms during the pandemic meant in terms of a potential for creativity and its search for audience? Has that “digital acceleration” ended? Or is there more to be found once the world of conference calls and panel discussions stops owning the Zoom world?
Is there more—better yet, isn’t there more—that we could do with these communications technologies?
Where she starts to look at the issue is by turning around, if you will, not to face the creator but to face the people the creator is looking for: “How to find an audience” is, as her writing on the project points out, the common denominator.
“We live in a world where everyone with access to technology can publish,” the opening backgrounder says. “From YouTubers to Instagram-influencers, from gamers watching each other play online to writers self-publishing, content is everywhere. And yet, the biggest company with its most promising title and the podcaster putting their first episode online share the same problem: how to find an audience?”
. . . .
The Amplified Publishing program’s background materials tell us:
“Digital technologies have fostered the proliferation of new platforms for publishing as well as new platforms for broadcasting, and the rise of video streaming has further dissolved the boundaries between these two modes.
“The music and games sectors include publishing as part of their workflows, though what publishing means in practice varies widely across these sectors. New models of content creation in virtual, augmented, and mixed reality environments further adds to the possibilities for blue sky research. The rise of audio along with voice activation via smart speakers in the home also provide multiple opportunities for R&D.
“While the COVID-19 crisis has delivered rapid change, increasing our use of video conferencing tools, pushing teaching and learning online, boosting sales for some sectors, while decimating delivery models for others, we are asking big questions: What does ‘publishing’ mean in the 21st century? How will the increased availability of seamless and synchronous visual and audio media enhance and expand traditional media, like books and magazines? What does personalization offer to both content creators, their publishers, and their audiences? With the rise of visual storytelling, what is the future of reading?
In every skirmish in the ‘culture war’, be it fought in universities, Twitter or Parliament, there’s an inevitable reference to Harry Potter. The Potter references can seem like a joke; the perpetual furore around the politics of a ‘mere’ children’s author more so. But it is no laughing matter. Harry Potter is a cultural force and a financial powerhouse, one that is, ultimately – and for some, frustratingly – ‘uncancellable’.
According to YouGov, British Millennials have a 95% awareness of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For context, this puts Harry Potter significantly above classics such as Winnie the Pooh (90%) and Alice in Wonderland (85%), or, for that matter, Marvel movies. It is uniquely high among all publishing properties. By comparison, The Hate U Give – a stunning contemporary book with massive cultural ramifications and prolonged sales dominance – has a 24% awareness in the same demographic. That level of familiarity is, for a book, incredibly impressive. But Harry Potter is a universal cultural touchstone.
And, again for context, “Millennial” means anyone born between 1980 and 1994, a group that now makes up nearly 14% of the population of Britain (and 90% of the headlines). The eldest Millennials are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and have children of their own. Yet, despite countless efforts by publishers and creators of all types, there is no “new” Harry Potter; no other property with the same ubiquitous cultural presence.
How is it that a children’s book from three decades ago has successfully remained at the heart of every conversation?
The first reason is found in the story itself. There have been countless theses written on this very subject, but there is, unquestionably, something special about the boy. Henry Jenkins has examined the phenomena at length, and argues (to paraphrase) that the series’ appeal stems from its ability to allow readers to see themselves in Rowling’s world. It is, again, to paraphrase, just rich enough: readers are fascinated by the world, but there’s still room for them to fit in. It is welcoming, and more than that, participative. The loose fabric of the Potterverse invites its readers to indulge in passionate meddling, a form of imaginative activism that has translated to a long lasting, and real world, belief in the power to make change.
Secondly, it is impossible to underestimate the cultural supernova that was the release of individual Harry Potter books when they were first published. By the end of the series, it was a national obsession akin to, one suspects, Beatlemania. Pottermania united the British public – often in the queue at Sainsbury’s, where they would be patiently waiting to snatch up a copy. Readers – and even non-readers! – were all feverishly tearing through books on buses and trains, during lunch breaks and all through the night.
Potter’s explosion also took place before online retailers dominated the scene – in those innocent days when supermarkets were seen as the Dark Lords of book retail. People crammed into brick and mortar retailers, all physically coming together in their need for the book. This increased the visibility of the moment, and the sense of cultural unison. Wanting, buying, reading Harry Potter was the thing to do. Potter’s moment was made all the more unique, and bittersweet, by the fact it will not – and cannot – ever happen again. The retail and media landscape have fragmented too much, and take place in quieter, more personal, and less visible ways. It was, again to borrow from Jenkins, the “last gasp of mass culture”.
. . . .
The result is a creative property that is both culturally influential and an unavoidable, arguably essential, pillar of the publishing sector. Harry Potter is deeply woven into our culture. And Harry Potter is also a financial juggernaut, one that single-handedly keeps publishers and retailers afloat.
The village of Lidice was located in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (present-day Czech Republic) during WWII. In reprisal for the assassination of a Nazi official in the Spring of 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the assassination of all men in Lidice, aged 16 and older. The women and children were taken to concentration camps or gassed, and the village of Lidice was destroyed.
In 1939, the area around Lidice came under Nazi control. Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking German official, was appointed Deputy Reich Protector of the area. Heydrich was one of the principal architects of the Holocaust. He was known for brutality, murder, and efforts to destroy any Nazi resistance. On May 27, 1942, Heydrich was being driven to his headquarters at Prague Castle when his car was attacked by two Czechoslovak resistance operatives. The operatives were trained in Great Britain and operated under the approval of the Czechoslovak government. Heydrich was wounded and died less than a week later.
German officials declared a state of emergency and established a curfew in Prague. They began a massive search for the attackers, promising that anyone involved, and their families, would be executed. Days later, when they failed to locate any conspirators, they decided to destroy the village of Lidice in reprisal. They chose Lidice because its residents were suspected of harboring members of the local resistance.
On June 10, 1942, German police and SS officials surrounded Lidice to block off any escape route. They rounded up 192 boys and men from Lidice and marched them to a farm on the edge of town, where they lined them up and shot them in groups.
Nazi officials separated the women and children and loaded the women onto rails cars for transport to concentration camps. Most went to Ravensbrück, where 60 died. A few of the children considered racially pure were handed over to SS families. The rest were likely killed in late June when Nazi official Adolph Eichman ordered the children to be gassed to death at Chelmno extermination camp.
In all, some 340 people from Lidice died and the town was destroyed. Nazi officials shelled the village, set it on fire, and plowed over the remains. To further erase the memory of Lidice, the name of the village was removed from all local municipal records.
Horst Böhme, the SiPo chief for the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, immediately acted on the orders. Members of the Ordnungspolizei and SD (Sicherheitsdienst) surrounded the village of Lidice, blocking all avenues of escape. The Nazi regime chose this village because its residents were suspected of harbouring local resistance partisans and were falsely associated with aiding Operation Anthropoid team members.Post-war memorial ceremony to honour victims
All men of the village were rounded up and taken to the farm of the Horák family on the edge of the village. Mattresses were taken from neighbouring houses where they were stood up against the wall of the Horáks’ barn to prevent ricochets. The shooting of the men commenced at about 7:00 am. At first the men were shot in groups of five, but Böhme thought the executions were proceeding too slowly and ordered that ten men be shot at a time. The dead were left lying where they fell. This continued until the afternoon hours when there were 173 dead. Another 11 men who were not in the village that day were arrested and murdered soon afterwards as were eight men and seven women already under arrest because they had relations serving with the Czech army in exile in the United Kingdom. Only three male inhabitants of the village survived the massacre, two of whom were in the RAF and stationed in England at the time. The only adult man from Lidice actually in Czechoslovakia who survived this atrocity was František Saidl (1887–1961), the former deputy-mayor of Lidice who had been arrested at the end of 1938 because on 19 December 1938 he accidentally killed his son Eduard Saidl. He was imprisoned for four years and had no idea about this massacre. He found out when he returned home on 23 December 1942. Upon discovering the massacre, he was so distraught he turned himself in to SS officers in the nearby town of Kladno, confessed to being from Lidice, and even said he approved of the assassination of Heydrich. Despite confirming his identity, the SS officers simply laughed at him and turned him away, and he went on to survive the war.
Women and children
Maria Doležalová, one of the children kidnapped from Lidice, testifies at the RuSHA trialMemorial to the murdered children of Lidice
A total of 203 women and 105 children were first taken to Lidice village school, then the nearby town of Kladno and detained in the grammar school for three days. The children were separated from their mothers and four pregnant women were sent to the same hospital where Heydrich died, forced to undergo abortions and then sent to different concentration camps. On 12 June 1942, 184 women of Lidice were loaded on trucks, driven to Kladno railway station and forced into a special passenger train guarded by an escort. On the morning of 14 June, the train halted on a railway siding at the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. The camp authorities tried to keep the Lidice women isolated, but were prevented from doing so by other inmates. The women were forced to work in leather processing, road building, textile and ammunition factories.
Eighty-eight Lidice children were transported to the area of the former textile factory in Gneisenau Street in Łódź. Their arrival was announced by a telegram from Horst Böhme’s Prague office which ended with: the children are only bringing what they wear. No special care is desirable. The care was minimal and they suffered from a lack of hygiene and from illnesses. By order of the camp management, no medical care was given to the children. Shortly after their arrival in Łódź, officials from the Central Race and Settlement branch chose seven children for Germanisation. The few children considered racially suitable for Germanisation were handed over to SS families.
The furore over Lidice caused some hesitation over the fate of the remaining children but in late June Adolf Eichmann ordered the massacre of the remainder of the children. However Eichmann was not convicted of this crime at his trial in Jerusalem, as the judges deemed that “… it has not been proven to us beyond reasonable doubt, according to the evidence before us, that they were murdered.” On 2 July, all of the remaining 82 Lidice children were handed over to the Łódź Gestapo office, who sent them to the Chelmno extermination camp 70 kilometres (43 miles) away, where they were gassed to death in Magirus gas vans. Out of the 105 Lidice children, 82 died in Chełmno, six died in the German Lebensborn orphanages and 17 returned home.
PG hasn’t put together this litany of horrors to ruin your day.
He is concerned that the great wars of the Twentieth Century and their aftermath are being forgotten. Virtually all of Europe and large swaths of Asia were terribly damaged. The exact number of deaths will never be known, but an estimated 20 million deaths were caused by World War I and 70-85 million people were killed in World War II. In each case, the civilian deaths exceeded deaths of members of the military.
In addition to deaths by violence, there were 19 to 25 million war-related famine deaths in the USSR, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India caused by World War II that are not usually included in war casualty figures.
Like others, PG is sometimes disturbed by Wokesters who are triggered by seeing the statue of a Civil War General and claim deep hurt and lasting harm from this experience.
In 1964, when she was in her 50s, the Moomin creator Tove Jansson settled on her dream island. Klovharun in the Finnish archipelago is tiny – some 6,000 sq metres – and isolated, “a rock in the middle of nowhere”, according to Jansson’s niece, Sophia. It has scarcely any foliage, no running water and no electricity. Yet for Jansson, it was an oasis. For 18 years she and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä spent long summers there, heading out from Helsinki as soon as the ice broke in April, leaving only in early October. The island meant “privacy, remoteness, intimacy, a rounded whole without bridges or fences”.
Klovharun encapsulates something of Jansson’s originality as an artist and writer – and her human presence. Her illustrated Moomin books, which began to be published just after the second world war, brought her phenomenal acclaim and devotion. The tales of amiable troll creatures have been taken to generations of hippy hearts; their pear-shaped faces have adorned a million ties. Their marketing triumph – in which Jansson enthusiastically participated – has overshadowed her other achievements as a painter, novelist, short-story writer, anti-Nazi cartoonist, and designer of magazine covers
. . . .
In the last decade nature writing has surged in Britain, and proved extraordinarily varied. Robert Macfarlane has caused us to look at paths as revealing “the habits of a landscape”. Tim Dee has reminded us to look up at the sky and listen to the birds; Merlin Sheldrake’s studies of fungi are making us consider what fusions are going on under our feet; Alice Oswald’s poetry can make you hear water moving as if it were the blood in your veins. These investigations have reverberated strongly in cities over the last year, with lockdowners thrilling to the idea of unreachable wide open space and to the miniature excitements of their own neighbourhoods, the individual blooms they can entice into their flats.
. . . .
Tove Jansson’s writing is different. She has wonderful passages in which entire landscapes are made by peering at blades of grass and scraps of bark. Yet her main Moomin adventures are startlingly catastrophic. For all the light clarity of the prose – which is comic, benign and quizzical – these books show places gripped by ferocious forces, laid waste by storms and floods and snows. They speak (but never obviously) of characters resonating to the winds and seas around them. They include visions that now read like warnings of climate change: “the great gap that had been the sea in front of them, the dark red sky overhead, and behind, the forest panting in the heat”.
. . . .
There is some relish in these extremes: Jansson loved a storm and her island aesthetic is distinctive. Anti-lush, sculpted by the elements rather than softly shaped by a human hand. This is not like living in a garden. Everything is provisional, prey to winds and fogs and being swept away. It is the outdoor equivalent of chucking out your chintz. What’s more, this is writing about nature that provides not only wonder and leisure but a living. Jansson and Pietilä worked hard to support themselves on Klovharun: they chopped wood, made fires, rowed boats, gutted fish. Their attitude reminds me of James Rebanks, the inspiring Cumbrian sheep farmer, who points out that while visitors look at the fells and hills and see beauty, his fellow farmers see sustenance, income and labour.
I read an article the other day about a computer program that writes fiction. You feed it a few lines, tell it the genre – science fiction, horror – and it produces the rest. And it’s not bad at it. It writes in full grammatical sentences; comes up with metaphors and analogies; emulates a writer’s particular style and so on. The author of the article, who seemed a little too thrilled about the existence of this diabolical toy from the depths of Silicon Valley says, at some point, that this “tool” was going to be the “salvation” for writers who dislike writing, which, according to him, is nearly all writers. I want to say to this writer: you are wrong. And to this robot that writes fiction I want to say … well I don’t want to say anything to it because, you know, robots are robots.
Fiction is one of the most pleasurable of human activities. It’s one of the most difficult, yes; but when it is driven by a deep desire, it is one of the most pleasurable. Fiction is also something quite like a bodily intuition, or an embodied knowledge, something we feel when our minds are able to pierce through the mesh of the present, and imagine someplace/something other. At times, when we try to peer into that other place what we see is too painful, shocking or simply abysmal. But we have to look at it anyway, and make something of it, make something with it. The word fiction, in fact, comes from the Latin fingere, which means “to shape, to form”, and originally, “to mould something out of clay”. Fingere implies the action of making, or rather, giving form. It is not inventing something that is not true, but giving shape to something that was already there. Fiction requires a combination of insight, hindsight and foresight. In other words, it requires experience.
Lost Children Archive is a novel about childhood solitude and children’s boundless imagination, the fragile intensity of familial ties, about tensions between history and fiction, and the complex intersections of political circumstances and personal lives. But more than anything, it is a novel about the process of making stories, of threading voices and ideas together in an attempt to better understand the world around us. It is a novel about fiction. It begins with two parents telling stories – their children physically but also metaphorically riding in the backseat of the family car – but then shifts to the children’s narrative, to them becoming the voices that tell us the story of the fucked-up but sometimes blindingly stunning world that we are always fictioning, as in, always shaping and reshaping.
In this past year of isolation and doubt, and so much fear, my daughter, my niece and I have been reading out loud to each other, for company, for a better sense of togetherness, maybe, beyond cooking and eating meals and cleaning the house. We read to each other the way one seeks company around a fireplace – to be alone, together. Often, we play a game: we sit in front of the bookshelves, and one of us choses a book with our eyes closed, and then we read out loud from it, sometimes just a few lines, sometimes entire chapters.
We’ve been reading Audre Lorde, Marguerite Duras, James Joyce, and even a vampire series the title of which I will never confess. In any case, I can say, without a hint of doubt, that without books – without sharing in the company of other writers’s human experiences – we would not have made it through these months. If our spirits have found renewal, if we have found strength to carry on, if we have maintained a sense of enthusiasm for life, it is thanks to the worlds that books have given us. Each time, we found solace in the companions that live in our bookshelves.
Recently, for a project I’m working on, I interviewed some women in my family about what they feared most. What are you afraid of? I asked. My mother said: “Perder claridad” – to lose clarity. My daughter said: “I’m afraid of being left alone.” My younger niece said: “Expectations.” My older niece said: “I’m afraid of my relationship failing, losing love.”
“And what are you afraid of, Mamma?” my daughter then asked me.
What am I afraid of? I am afraid, like any adult, of many things. Of loss, of not being able to provide for those who depend on me, of political violence, of climate change and Silicon Valley. But I am particularly afraid of our spirits becoming stagnant, of not having a narrative to believe in, of not having a common space in which to listen to each other and understand each other deeply. I am afraid, in other words, of a world without fiction. A world in which we do not share a collective space of imagination.
In 2020, ebook and audiobook sales in the Spanish-language markets’ publishers responding to Bookwire and Dosdoce saw increases of 112 percent for ebooks and 137 percent for audiobooks
Downloaded ebook sales generated a 97-percent increase in turnover for publishers in 2020 over 2019
In all seven years of this report series’ life, gains have been recorded, but in 2020 that aggregate gain among the 840+ publishers was 113 percent
Ebook subscription platform revenues for publishers in 2020 in Spanish-language content increased 112 percent
. . . .
Digital exports have accounted for 50 percent of digital revenue for Spanish publishers
Mexico generates 16 percent of ebook sales by Spanish publishers “across the Atlantic”
During the most severe lockdown months in the relevant territories “digital consumption multiplied four times”
By the end of this year, the report’s authors are estimating that there will have been 14,300 Spanish-language audiobook titles available. “Judging by the trends in international markets,” the report’s text reads, “everything points to a 25- to 30-percent increase in audiobook sales in 2021, thus reaching €13 million in Spanish-language markets (US$15.9 million).
The average price in 2020 of a Spanish ebook was €6.06 (US$7.41), and the average price of a Spanish audiobook was €13.49 (US$16.49).
And with all deference to the old sayings about content’s importance, when it comes to audiobook sales channels, the report says, the subscription is king, accounting for 86 percent of sales. The platforms driving those sales, as might be expected, were Storytel, Audible, Scribd, Kobo, and Podimo. In podcasting, streaming platforms of course hold the lead (Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, iVoox, Podimo).
As for the markets themselves, Spain is anticipated to be seen as the leading Spanish-language market for audiobooks this year, with Mexico as the second driver, and the United States as the No. 3 market for Spanish audio–the rest of Latin America following.
A novel written about the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 but which was then forgotten about for 80 years has made it onto a UK bestsellers list.
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger is about a Jewish man who – like the author – attempts to escape the rise of the Nazi regime.
It was rediscovered in 2018 after the author’s niece told an editor about it.
The book has had stellar reviews and has now entered The Sunday Times list of top 10 hardback fiction bestsellers.
The UK edition sold almost 1,800 copies last week to put it at number 10 on the list.
It was written in the weeks after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, also known as the November Pogrom), the outbreak of mass violence against Jews in Germany and Austria in November 1938.
It tells the story of a Jewish businessman called Otto van Silbermann, who hears a knock at his door from Nazi Storm Troopers and quickly realises he must flee.
He and his wife stuff all their money into a suitcase and end up boarding train after train across Germany as they try to make their escape.
Boschwitz himself had left Germany three years earlier after anti-Semitic laws were enacted.
His book was published in the US and UK in 1939 and 40 respectively, but made little impact and soon went out of print. The author died in 1942 at the age of 27 when a boat he was travelling on was torpedoed by the Germans.
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Boschwitz’s niece contacted German editor Peter Graf after reading an interview with him about another novel he had rediscovered.
She told him about her uncle and the book, the original typescript of which was in the archive of the National Library in Frankfurt.
Graf went there and told the BBC that as soon as he read it, he “knew that this was an important novel”.
He decided to edit and revise the book and it was published in Germany. It has now been released in 20 other languages so far this year.
He believes the novel, written more than 80 years ago, has a powerful message for modern society.
“If you look at the refugee problem today, you see that the willingness to help people in need is low. And the more refugees there are, the less people are willing to help. This terrible and simple pattern runs through history,” he said.
“After the November pogroms in Germany, almost no country accepted Jews. They were trapped. And people who are assumed to leave their country only for economic reasons are even worse off in this respect than those who are persecuted.”
Graf added that the novel was essentially about “the disenfranchisement of a hitherto respected and well-off citizen”. He added: “Anyone who reads the fate of Otto Silbermann will understand a lot about human values and how terrorism and the lack of courage of the masses make terror against individual groups possible.”
The most common food in the medieval historical romance Kristin Lavransdatter, written by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), is oatmeal porridge, a dish I made elaborate perfection of during my children’s early years. The porridges in Undset’s book are good and nourishing but plain (though in one scene, a young Kristin eats hers with “thick cream” off her father’s spoon). Mine, on the other hand, were ridiculous. I blitzed half the oats in the baby-food blender before cooking. I tried different combinations of milk and water. I made fruit puree swirls. I had a two-year-old daughter, an infant son, and an office job, to which I fled every day in great relief to get a moment to myself and then struggled not to leak breast milk on my work clothes. My husband was unhelpful with the children. Childless people found my travails boring and embarrassing. I’d never thought being a woman mattered much, but suddenly it seemed to. I was miserable, and perfecting the oatmeal made me feel better.
Kristin Lavransdatter, which unfolds over the course of three volumes—The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross—is a woman’s story. It’s also a gripping read and an impressive feat of historical re-creation, which helped Undset win the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. The epic’s structural and textual allusions are so numerous that, as the professor Sherrill Harbison dryly remarks in her introduction to The Cross, they “show no signs of being exhausted by scholars.” (She also—correctly, I feel—thinks the book is overlooked.) When writing Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset drew from sagas, ballads, Scandinavian oral tradition, and medieval texts of all types, notably the allegory Le roman de la rose, to tell the tale of a woman in the early fourteenth century, a time when society was changing for women, who takes her newish right to consent to her own marriage a step further and demands her own choice of husband. Not accidentally, Undset was writing in the 1920s, another time of rapid social change.
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The story follows Kristin, daughter of Lavrans, from childhood to death. Lavrans is a salt-of-the-earth Norwegian, “a strong and courageous man, but a peaceful soul, honest and calm, humble in conduct but courtly in bearing, a remarkably capable farmer and a great hunter.” As the treasured offspring of this strong and good man, Kristin is herself strong and good, and destined to carry on her family’s legacy of virtue. But in the book’s first section, Lavrans takes her up to the mountain pastures with a handful of children and servants to see to some land-management tasks. The group eats lunch outdoors amid the dazzling mountain views—“soft bread and thin lefse, butter and cheese, pork and wind-dried reindeer meat, lard, boiled beef brisket, two large kegs of German ale, and a small jug of mead.” Lavrans gives Kristin “all the ale she could drink, along with frequent sips of mead” and says: “God’s gifts will do you good, not harm, all you who are still growing. The ale will give you sweet red blood and make you sleep well.” The whole party falls asleep in the midday sunshine. Kristin, unaccustomed to drinking, wakes up with a headache and a dry mouth and accidentally wanders off down the wooded slope, where she is first captivated by her reflection in a stream and then sees an apparition, a woman with “a pale face,” “flowing, flaxen hair,” and “full breasts,” which are “covered with brooches and gleaming necklaces.” Kristin flees in terror, but the damage has been done.
The woman is an elf maiden. In Norwegian folklore, Harbison writes, the elf maiden represents “abduction and erotic abandon; her mischief is to lure young girls into the mountain for orgies with the mountain king.” Later, it will be Kristin’s fate to defy the counsel of her wise and good father, the values of her community, and the expectations of her religion, and reject an eminently appropriate betrothed, Simon Darre, for a different man, Erlend Nikulausson, with whom she falls in wild, besotted, sexual love. The reflection in the water is a reference to the myth of Narcissus, an inspiration for Le roman de la rose, which is about a dreamer who falls in love with a beautiful rose at the bottom of a pool but is eventually persuaded to make the more “responsible” choice: to marry a woman and reproduce. Throughout the entirety of Kristin Lavransdatter, the title character struggles with her decision to choose Erlend, herself, and her passion over her community’s values—which are also, with anguish, her own values. The motifs of Narcissus, the elf maiden, and the mountain king continue to appear.
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Familiarity with the source material invaluably deepens one’s appreciation of the book’s themes, making Harbison’s introduction to The Cross required reading. She explains that even the idea of romantic love the way Kristin experiences it was relatively new in the fourteenth century. Romantic, or courtly, love was “invented by poets in France in the twelfth century” and represented an advance in the status of women, because suddenly they were deemed worthy of inspiring heights of passion. (Prior to this, sex with women was considered a troublesome and low occupation that kept men from their real work.) Courtly love, though, wasn’t quite the same as how we view romance today—it claimed the highest status for doomed, forbidden, secret passions, usually between people who were married, but not to each other. The beautiful, unattainable rose at the bottom of the pool in Le roman de la rose is evocative of this kind of love. In an echo of its symbolism, Kristin and Erlend’s first outing together is in a rose garden.
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Everywhere there was food in medieval Norway, there was drink, and often many kinds on the same table—wines and meads, ales strong and weak. The ensuing drunkenness is another aspect of the books’ harsh realism and another example of the dual nature of God’s gifts. My spirits consultant, Hank Zona, found me not just meads but a mead trend, which serendipitously reflects both Kristin Lavransdatter’s pagan Catholic spirituality and some of our more modern struggles to live virtuously and situate ourselves in our wider human community. First, I spoke to a home mead maker named Eileen Coles, whom I met through the Norwegian immigrant community in Brooklyn. Coles brews mead as a sacred beverage in the Heathen tradition. (Heathen is a designation for the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Northern European religion.) Coles noted that mead is found worldwide, “wherever one would find beehives, in places as far-flung as India, Ethiopia, and China,” but that it and beer are more prevalent in Northern Europe because of the climate. Since grapes don’t grow well in the cold, “people made do with what was available—grains, herbs, and honey.”
Chile-based online bookstore Buscalibre saw a 196% increase in sales in 2020, rising from 270,000 to over 800,000 units shifted, as lockdown closed bricks & mortar bookstores.
Three months after the pandemic began, reported La Republica,
Penguin Random House registered an increase in the sales of the book El amor en los tiempo del cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez, in physical and digital version, growing 183% in Spanish and 621% in English.
Of course that does not mean the English-language version outsold the Spanish version by three to one (percentages in the book trade are never that straight forward), but it is indicative of the boom in online sales experienced by the twelve year old company, now also operating in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Spain and the USA. Juan José Daza, Buscalibre country manager for Colombia, Mexico and Peru, told La Republica that sales in Colombia are expected to be up 20%, from 100,000 to 120,000 units per month.
While the Colombian Book Chamber reported an overall fall of 30% in book sales last year as regular book channels were locked down, 15 regional book fairs that normally pull in large in-person crowds went virtual.
Colombia’s flagship Fil Bogota event was the first major pandemic-induced book fair cancellation of 2020 in Latin America, as early as March. In 2019 Fil Bogota, or FilBo, attracted over 600,000 visitors.
But between July and November the Colombia book trade got its act together and the virtual book fairs pulled in a total of 2.1 million visitors.
No word on how many sales that may have driven, but the shift to online consumer engagement with books is clear, leaving the big question how much that might be reversed as the pandemic’s impact subsides.
Some are optimistic. Take Esteban Restrepo, Natalia Osorio and Alejandro Rubiano, co-founders of the “new” (2019) Colombian online bookstore Bukz, which from a user base of currently 8,000 expects to shift 50,000 books before the end of this year, and is targeting annual sales of 250,000 valued at US$2.7 million by 2025.
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Digital books have also shown growth, of course, but estimates are they still represent only around 5% of the Colombia book market right now.
Does that mean print is still king? Of course, but what really matters is how consumers will respond as more and more digital options become available and the print and digital choices are comparable. Those 2.1 million online book fair visitors, and the boom in online sales of print books, make clear Colombians are comfortable shopping online.
All it needs now is a serious digital books player to enter the market, but right now there’s no Kindle store here, Apple and Kobo are only notionally present, and local players struggle to find adequate content at appropriate prices.