Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Heads over heels for Frankfurt

On the lighter side of this blog, let us take a moment to talk about fashion. I just finished my wardrobe shopping for Frankfurt! We all know it. Publishing is no Sex in the City. We don’t dress the part. Nevertheless, Frankfurt to me is a look at the international fall collections. (there was one year when EVERYONE was wearing corduroy but me). Let’s not talk about men, here. The typical Frankfurt Book Fair male wears a white shirt, a colorful tie and a grey suit. The women, on the other hand, go shopping before they hit the book walk. At my first job in publishing I was given a check for a 3-figure amount ("nice deal") to go clothes shopping (plus a free massage), and I did what every woman around me was doing: investing in heels. Yes, you can wear heels in Frankfurt! I have a friend who would walk 5 days straight, day and night, in stilettos. My goal every year was not to find comfortable shoes for Frankfurt but to buy comfortable heels for Frankfurt. I have to admit, now that I am older, I don’t do heels anymore because I realized that the book fair is more about books than shoes or fashion. Anyway, I got my clothing shopping done. That’s all I wanted to share.

P.S. Everything is on sale right now.

France's New Craze: The Literary Smackdown

The French publisher Flammarion kickstarted what looks to be a trend by commissioning an exchange of letters between sworn enemies, the novelistic uber-cynic Michel Houellebecq and philosopher-king Bernard-Henri Levy.

The book is appropriately entitled Public Enemies and is getting a whopping 100,000 copy first printing, largely in the hope that it will attract enough interest to top the other 630 books being published during la rentree litteraire.

Publishers: Take note. This could be the start of an entirely new genre. John Thronhill, Paris editor of the Financial Times certainly thinks so.

The whole idea strikes me as a return to the days when book review letters-to-the editor pages were still must reads, largely because of the ongoing caustic exchanges between writers who couldn't stand the sight of each other and were often trying to sleep with each other's spouses.

It's just the sort of thing the late Norman Mailer excelled at.

Unfortunately, today so many writers are metaphorically already in-bed with each other -- recommending each other for awards, blurbs, academic residencies and generally keeping a closed, benighted circle. I suspect most publishers would struggle to entice two writers to really duke it out -- that is, unless they have truly titanic egos.

Tell me, who would you most like to see paired up?
The Americanisation of the UK continues. There has been much talk in recent weeks of ‘Super Thursday’ because of the number of high-profile Christmas titles being published on Thursday, 2 October. I think this idea could be taken further. Why don’t the big titles each have their own rally, maybe in a football stadium, with balloons and cheerleaders, and tickertapes bearing the details of each retailer’s subscription falling from the sky? The titles in question could arrive by helicopter, or gently float to the stage by parachute. You could have the Nigella Lawson Nigella Christmas (Chatto) convention, the Jeremy Clarkson For Crying Out Loud (Michael Joseph) caucus, the Dawn French Dear Fatty (Century) rally…

But, to be serious for a minute, the glut of titles due on this date highlights a problem that continues to annoy sectors of the UK book trade. Booksellers frequently complain that the year is unbalanced, that too many titles are released for the Christmas market, leaving the shops with fewer lead titles to attract customers at other times of the year.

What we may see this Christmas is an increase in a battle among the major chains and supermarkets for the lead titles, with the independent sector choosing to ignore them, focusing on the so-called second string titles and making those their own. It’s as if we have the slow arrival of a two-tier book trade – and it’s easy to see why this happens. Why bother selling Nigella when the supermarkets and Amazon and WHSmith are knocking it out at a price cheaper than your wholesaler charges you? To keep to the US theme - it’s enough to lead to a War of Independents.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The 'Empire' Strikes back!

A special Summit on the eve of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair will examine three sometimes overlooked—yet growing and dynamic—English-language book markets.

A century ago, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were part of the British Empire. While that Empire is long gone, these three countries are still considered by some—wrongly—as merely extensions of the dominant British or American book markets.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While they contain predominantly English-language populations, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are now free of their colonial past and are vibrant book markets in their own right, with their own unique publishing cultures.

To encourage greater interaction and cooperation between these three book markets, a special Summit is being hosted by the Association for the Export of Canadian Books (AECB), the Australian Publishers Association and the Book Publishers Association of New Zealand to discuss the many opportunities that exist, and also to explore the common issues and challenges faced by Canadian, Australian and New Zealand publishers.

Participants have been invited from some of the leading publishing companies in each country, including:

• Rob Sanders—Publisher, Greystone Books (Canada)
• Craig Riggs—Partner, Turner-Riggs Consulting and author of the Canadian Book Retail Study done on behalf of the Department of Canadian Heritage
• Juliet Rogers—Global Managing Director, Murdoch Books (Australia)
• Erica Wagner—Children’s Publisher, Allen & Unwin (Australia)
• Margie Wolfe—Owner and Publisher, Second Story Press(Canada)
• Scott McIntyre—Chair, Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group (Canada)
• Teresa Garnett—Manager, Export, Pearson Education (New Zealand)
• Kevin Chapman—Managing Director & Publisher, Hachette Livre (New Zealand)

I'm told the event will also be attended by the Ambassadors of the three countries, in a show of solidarity.

The Summit will be held in Room Esprit, Hall 9.1 on Tuesday 14 October from 8.30am. You'll need to pre-book if you're interested with the AECB.

It promises to be an interesting morning. With more and more agents and publishers separating Canadian and ANZ rights from UK and US rights, there's never been a better time to learn about these markets, and find out what you're missing.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Two weeks ago, Hurricane Ike and its 125 mile per hour winds steam rolled over Houston, where I now live.

No, the destruction wasn’t the same as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, but Houston is roughly ten times the size of the city of New Orleans – with some 2.5 million people – and the financial toll is ultimately going to be far more devastating.

Also, if you’re at all curious why I haven’t been blogging, it’s because I’m one of the two million residents of the city of Houston in the dark for the past fourteen days.

Prior to the storm, I thought the guys in pick-up trucks who were camped out at gas stations filling up their fire engine red, five-gallon supplemental gas tanks seemed a little paranoid.

Then things got weird. In the hours before the storm the city got very quiet. The streets around my neighborhood were all but abandoned. Windows were boarded-up, making this prosperous community look all but derelict. Those that waited too long to get plywood to protect their windows tacked up cheap, blue plastic tarps, the kind the UN hands out to refugees for makeshift shelters.

I took my dog for a walk, only a few people were out: an old man with wispy gray hair who rode slowly by on a bicycle wearing a floral print sundress; a man wearing just a pair of shorts – no shirt, no shoes – hobbled by on crutches; a woman with tattoos crawling up her neck dragging her tiny dog “Ninja” on a leash.

There was a pre-apocalyptic air about the place and it made me think of Neville Shute’s novel On the Beach.

The next morning, following the storm, it wasn’t quite a dark and hopeless Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but it was a disaster. Apolcalypse-lite, so to speak. We joined the others who weren’t trapped by floods and fallen trees and caravanned out of the city as fast as we could.

It’s ironic, of course, that Houston has been left without power for so long, considering it is considered the energy capital of the United States.
Houston is also not a place known for the literary arts. I often get asked why I live in Houston and not Austin (where I lived prior to Houston) or New York. My usual reply is that I can live in Houston and afford to make a living as a book critic.

The truth is that the distance from being constantly surrounded by those in the book world is that it has actually given me space to think. I can read a book and think about it on my own without going out to a party and being bombarded with other people’s opinions. That said, I do spend more time in New York than anywhere other than my hometown.

Then I realized even in a “non”-book town like Houston, there was a preponderance of literary life. On September 11, the day before the storm, David Ebershoff was in town to read from his excellent novel The 19th Wife. A.J. Jacobs was scheduled to read from The Year of Living Biblically, but flew out last minute so as not to risk delaying his tour. (It’s a shame, I planned to interview him and ask him whether he thought the flooding of New Orleans had any correlation to the Biblical flood).

That weekend, the biggest Latino book festival in the country was ready to convene in downtown Houston, but had to be cancelled; the following Monday a reading with Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz was cancelled. And on, and on…

All this time without electricity has given me a renewed appreciation for my library of books.

All talk of the Internet, video games and television signaling the death of reading, would have you thinking that books are an anachronism. Of course, when you’re powerless, none of these things have any relevance to your life. Daylight and a morning newspaper are luxurious; at night, a few candles and a good book are essential.

My friends who are booksellers here tell me business is booming; I’ve even had neighbors stop by to ask for books (it always shocks me when people don’t have a pile of stuff on their bedside they’ve been waiting to read.

Having no electricity has made me and those around me take more time to read for pleasure. Among the books I’ve sampled in the past two weeks, I’ve worked my way through Stieg Larsson’s intriguing mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, just published in the US, Martin Booth’s The Industry of Souls, a Booker Prize-shorted title from 1999 and one of my wife’s favorite books that I’d never read; and am just starting on The Snowball, Alice Schroeder’s new 960-page biography of investor Warren Buffett – a daunting, but timely, task considering the state of the financial markets in the US.

My brother-in-law has finished a pair of Sebastien Japrisot mystery novels; my wife just read Marianne Wiggins’s The Evidence of Things Unseen. Even the kids were dug into books which they’d checked out from the library on the day before the store especially in case of a lack of electricity.

The books, are what kept us entertained, distracted, and sane when the batteries on our laptops, cell phones, and Amazon Kindles ran out. They’ve given my family something to dwell on other than our own immediate problems (such as removing all the trees that have fallen onto our houses, or in some cases, come through the roofs.) It has been surprising to learn just how unkind and cranky people can be in just a few weeks without electricity and gas (no air conditioning).

Books, it turns out, make us civilized.
The stand-off between Hachette UK and Amazon continues, with all publishers watching closely, thinking ‘it could be us next’. You will recall that this kicked off back in the spring, with Hachette refusing to concede to Amazon’s terms demands and Amazon ‘punishing’ the publisher by removing the ‘buy new’ buttons (sometimes reported as ‘buy now’, incidentally) from key titles. Hachette Livre UK CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson wrote to authors outlining the group’s position, and has gained much respect (or even more respect: he has a lot anyway) from his fellow publishers for his tough stance. They see him as fighting a battle on behalf of all publishers.

None is perhaps watching the situation as closely as Random House whose own agreement with Amazon has run its course. It knows it could be “in the trenches with them soon”, as one senior figure told me recently. The deeper issue for publishers – the issue beyond terms, although that matters too, of course – is about control of content. Put simply, publishers suspect Amazon’s intentions. They point to Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, quietly published by Vintage in the UK last year. In the US, Amazon has bought a film option on this title and is looking to find a studio partner. Publishers forsee a day when Amazon will be so powerful it will be dictating exactly what is published. They worry that its ‘closed loop systems’ will continue – as with Kindle – and that, in the UK, it will take a larger and larger slice of the market, putting independents out of business and destabilising what is already a fragile enough market.

But back to the Hachette dispute. It does seem that the publisher has the upper hand here. Its titles are visible on the Amazon site, but Amazon presumably has to source them from Bertrams and Gardners, two definite winners it would seem, with Amazon naturally having to pay higher, wholesaler terms.

Of course, trying to explain all of the above – the respective party’s positions etc etc – to non-trade folk at a dinner party is a sure way to end the evening swiftly.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Once again, the Bookseller chose the Natural History Museum for its annual Retail Awards, with guests dining beneath the snout of the magnificent diplodocus which dominates the famous, cathedral-like entrance hall. One could almost imagine him glancing down and thinking, “Christ, not you lot again….”

Of course, choosing this venue allows the emcee – this year it was the actor and comedian Alexander Armstrong – to make all those ‘This is the first time I’ve performed a gig into a dinosaur’s backside…” remarks. Or barbed comments about “dinosaurs of the industry” etc etc. But in fact, this year it was one of the presenters, the writer George Monbiot, who made reference to the location.

Presenting the Penguin Award for Green Retail Initiative of the Year, which went to the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre in Erpingham (don’t worry, English people don’t know where it is either), he noted: “Unless we take green issues seriously it will be the skeletons of publishers that we will be sitting beneath in future years…”. He then praised Penguin (his publisher) for being “ahead of the curve” on these issues and for having cut its carbon emissions by 9%.

One of the best speeches of the evening belonged to Waterstone’s MD Gerry Johnson. On accepting the award for Headline Bookselling Company of the Year, he said: “This isn’t a brilliant company just because of the people – it’s a brilliant company because of the heritage we have inherited. And that heritage is not just Waterstone’s, but also Dillons’, Ottakar’s, Town and Country’s, Hammick’s….It’s the heritage that comes with bookselling.”

Only one unfortunate mishap took the edge off the evening. Some guests had already seen the results, which had inadvertently been put up on the Bookseller’s website before the dinner. No point poking fun here. After all, how many times have we all sent an e-mail before we meant to, or to the wrong person, or without the attachment? In this click-and-it’s-gone world in which we all live, it is so easily done.

Monday, September 22, 2008


There's a very bad old joke from the 1970s I recall hearing when I was a kid. I think it was from the UK comedy TV show The Two Ronnies. It went something like this:

'After the break we'll be interviewing a man who crossed [Australian musical entertainer] Rolf Harris with the Three Wise Virgins and created a didgeri-don't.'

You probably won't find that very funny unless

a) you know that Rolf Harris played the didgeridoo, the ceremonial wind instrument played by Australian Aboriginals, and
b) you're not particularly worried by a bit of political incorrectness, and
c) you enjoy lame jokes.

So, your appreciation of the joke depends to a fair degree on your cultural sensitivities.

This is something that perhaps my good friends at HarperCollinsPublishers Australia might have borne in mind when they were preparing the Australian edition of Andrea J Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz'sThe Daring Book for Girls, a companion book to Con and Hal Iggulden's bestselling (and shamelessly imitated) Dangerous Book for Boys.

Among several 'things an modern Australian girl needs to know' created for the Australian edition (due in October), there were sections on how to surf and play netball, and a section on how girls could learn to play the didgeridoo.

Sounds fair enough, except Aboriginal taboo forbids the playing of the didgeridoo by females, and many Aboriginal Australians were rather upset by what one called 'an extreme faux pas'. According to Mark Rose of Victorian Aboriginal Education Association, a woman risks infertility if she touches a didgeridoo.

An embarrassed apology was duly issued, together with a promise to remove the offending section from future printings.

Not the first printing, mind: publishers have their own cultural sensitivities, among which is a commitment to the proverbial bottom line.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Person of Interest: Eric Kampmann, Publisher, Beaufort Books

This is the first in a series of short profiles of some of the people you might run into walking the halls at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.

Eric Kampmann isn’t shy of controversy: Last year, following it’s cancellation by HarperCollins, he picked up the rights to O.J. Simpson’s neo-confession “If I Did It.” Last week he just signed a contract to publish Sherry Jones’s controversial historical novel ``The Jewel of Medina,’’ which was cancelled by Random House earlier this year.

Jones’ novel, which re-imagines the life of Aisha, a pre-pubescent wife of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, had been scheduled for publication in August by Ballantine, an imprint of Random House. (See story earlier on this blog).

Ballantine thought highly enough of the book that they paid the author $100,000 for it and a yet-to-be written sequel, as well as set up an 8-city author tour.
Kampmann paid nothing for the book. Beaufort Book’s publishing model gives the author nothing up front and offers a higher than traditional royalty rate on sales.
``It’s the same model we used on the O.J. deal,” said Kampmann, who declined to reveal the specific royalty percentage.

Kampmann first learned about the controversy while watching Fox TV’s “The O’Reilly Factor,’’ when the author Irshad Manji (author of “The Trouble with Islam Today”) was discussing the book.

Many have described Random House’s decision as a kind of “preemptive censorship.” Kampmann believes that it is a mischaracterization: “This is not a free speech issue, it’s a free market issue. I come down on the side of Random House in that regard. With them, it was a fear issue.”

Kampmann is confident that his security, that of his author, or of bookstores selling the book is not likely to at risk following the publication of the book.

“In Europe, they have far more problems with radical Islamic violence than we do here in the United States,” said Kampmann, “There are a half-dozen European publishers putting out the book and if they don’t have a problem with it, I don’t.”
He added, “I’m not looking for trouble, but if it happens, we’ll deal with it then.”
As to whether the book will sell, Kampmann is sanguine that the controversy will spur interest in the book and indicated that initial orders for ``The Jewel of Medina’’ were better than expected and he’s anticipating a 50,000 copy first printing. It will arrive in US bookstores on October 15, concurrent with the UK publication by Gibson Square press.

He’s considering flying the author Jones to the Book Fair to promote the book and meet her international publishers, which include those in Italy, Spain, Hungary, Brazil and Serbia.

“Certainly, the book will be controversial,” said Kampmann. “Ultimately, it will rise and fall in the marketplace on its own merits. Hopefully reviewers will review it and we can have a debate about it. I’ve published a lot of books in the past. Some have done well, some have failed miserably. The one thing I know is that I’m no prophet.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Janet Frame: one of the greats

Last night I had the pleasure of dining with Pamela Gordon, the niece and literary executor of one of the 20th century's most extraordinary writers, New Zealand's Janet Frame (photo by Reg Graham pictured).

The occasion was the Australian launch of Frame's posthumous collection of poems, The Goose Bath. The book has been a bestseller in New Zealand since its publication in late 2006 and, for some reason, wasn't picked up by Random House Australia when it re-released Frame's backlist (including the celebrated autobiography, An Angel at My Table) under its Vintage imprint last year. So my company picked it up and has just published it in Australia. I doubt I'll get rich but it really is a marvellous book by a writer who got tantalisingly close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature not once but twice.

Frame's rights are handled by the Wylie Agency in London but the task of putting her affairs in order after her death from leukaemia in 2004 fell to Gordon. A modest, self-deprecating woman, she has taken the task of managing the estate conscientiously and tenaciously. Frame published 20 books in her lifetime, translated into many languages around the world. Gordon spent many long hours, assisted by the other trustees of the Janet Frame Literary Trust and Tim Curnow, the now-retired literary agent who used to run Curtis Brown's Australian office, planning the strategy to ensure that the Frame legacy continued.

The result is that Frame's work is now more available than it has ever been. The backlist has been re-packaged and republished, more translation rights have been sold and several unpublished works are now finally seeing the light of day. The novel, Towards Another Summer, was published to acclaim last year but Gordon feels her 'triumph' was sifting through hundreds of unpublished poems and finally marshaling The Goose Bath into print.

As Gordon explains in a fascinating interview on ABC radio, Frame was a poet first and a prose writer second, but somehow couldn't find the courage (or perhaps the interest from her publishers) to publish more than one collection of poetry in her own lifetime. The unpublished poems sat in boxes in an old fountain base once used by the family geese, dubbed 'the goose bath'.

Gordon and I talked about the common accusation leveled at literary executors of releasing substandard unpublished material. As Gordon sees it, there were reasons why some of Frame's work was not published in her lifetime that had nothing to do with its literary quality. Publishers were not so interested in her poetry, while Frame herself held back Towards Another Summer because it was perhaps too close to real life. While she couldn't face the task herself, Frame asked her niece to ensure the poems found their way into print.

Interestingly, Gordon told me over dinner that publishers sometimes assume that the rights to Frame's complete catalogue must be sewn up and so don't enquire about rights. I'm certainly glad I enquired. The truth is that there are still territories available for some of her best work and, with the Estate in good hands, there may never have been a better time to consider taking on this very special writer.

IPA Uses Award to Underscore Turkish Indimidation of Publishers

Turkey's tenure as the guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair isn't going to sit well with everyone.

Just a month before the Fair is to open, the International Publishers Association has given its Freedom to Publish Prize to Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu.

According to the IPA's press release, Turkey has a tenuous relationship with the concept of freedom of speech and, since 2005, have brought more than 1,000 writers, publishers and journalists to court for various offences.

Ragıp Zarakolu is one such victim: He was recently convicted of "insulting Turkishness" for having published a book entitled "The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled" by George Jerjian.

IPA President Ana María Cabanellas declared: “We sincerely hope this Prize will encourage him to continue. In giving publisher Ragıp Zarakolu the 2008 IPA Freedom to Publish Prize, we rise to honour the integrity, the steadfastness and the courage that he so marvellously demonstrates. In giving him the 2008 IPA Freedom to Publish Prize, we celebrate his humanity, his love of different cultures and his quest for truth and reconciliation."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Four ingredients for success

Here's a piece about two people you definitely won't see at Frankfurt even though, based on sales per book, they are arguably two of the most successful publishers in the world.

Rachael Bermingham and Kim McCosker's cookbook 4 Ingredients has so far sold 820,000 copies, primarily in Australia and New Zealand, where it is the biggest selling book of the past year. That means one in 31 people Down Under own a copy of this book, and sales simply continue to roll along. A second book, cannily titled 4 Ingredients 2, is now also high in the charts.

Now for the part that makes it all the more sweet: 4 Ingredients was only the second book either woman had published, and they were forced to self-publish because no publisher would take it on.

'It was out of sheer necessity that we self-published 4 Ingredients,' Rachael and Kim tell me. 'We did call every publisher in Australia with great enthusiasm to tell them about our fabulous book, but no-one wanted to know about it or us. Rachael had self-published before so it was the only direction we knew of on how to release our book.'

How could those publishers know that a book that features 340 recipes made with four ingredients or less would go on to outsell every book they published themselves? There are so many cookbooks published: what turned 4 Ingredients into such a phenomenon?

'There are four ingredients to the success of 4 Ingredients,' say Bermingham and McCosker. 'One - it's a very marketable [and classicially simple - AW] concept. Two - the book came out at the right time. It's a cookbook for busy people who wish to save time and money in the kitchen so they can get out and do the things they want to do rather than have to do. Three - you have two very driven, very passionate and very energetic woman who have remarkable professional skills behind this project. Four - and this is the most important key of all - marketing! Rachael's background is in marketing and it's been invaluable to the success and growth of the '4 Ingredients' books, business and brand.'

It also helps if you get retailer support. 4 Ingredients was taken up by Australian mass market retailers such as Kmart and Big W and started appearing in the Nielsen BookScan bestseller charts. Mainstream booksellers started to take on the book too. The book's small distributor, Gary Allen Pty Ltd, suddenly found itself with a bestseller.

Now Bermingham and McCosker are looking for overseas markets for the books: 'We've had interest from all over the world and are in talks with quite a few interested parties.' Can I suggest you get in touch quickly if you're interested?

And the brand is starting to expand: they recently completed filming of a cooking show for the Lifestyle cable TV station.

'We're not actors and certainly not professional TV talent - we are just busy mums showing ways to save time and money in thekitchen' they say, modestly. 'We have have our fingers and toes crossed that it helps others and that they love it enough for it to be picked up and shown in other countries too.'

With the second book, a gluten-free version and a range of merchandise about to roll out, it seems as though the '4 Ingredients' brand will be around for some time to come.

'Long term we don't know where the '4 Ingredients' journey will lead to. If you had said to us two years ago we'd have our own cooking show, we would have thought you a little mad! What we do know is that we'll keep going and keep growing the brand while we are still enjoying it.'

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

You know it's time for the Frankfurt Book Fair when...

Your spouse/boss/dog asks you "When is it exactly you'll be gone for AN ENTIRE WEEK?"

Your appointment book for October 15-19th starts looking like a schedule for the trains leaving the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof: One every 15 minutes.

Your email program, suddenly inundated with emails from publishers in China, Russia, Hungary, South Africa, India, and starts filing everything as SPAM.

You're assistant/travel agent calls to tell you that your favorite hotel is booked up, but they've found you a "very convenient one just a half hour train ride outside the city."

You draw up various lists of people: Those you want to have appointments with, those you want avoid having appointments with, those you want to have a drink with, those you want to...

Your colleagues start making excuses about why they aren't going to Frankfurt, complaining that "the exchange rate is just so terrible," while secretly wondering what they might miss and wondering if they should reconsider.

You start dreaming of a quick jaunt down to your favorite small hotel in Italy/Greece/Spain for a few days right after the Fair is over and wonder if anyone would miss you...

Tell us, how do you know it's time for Frankfurt?

Monday, September 8, 2008

A long day's journey ...

I've just booked my flight to Frankfurt for this year's fair. I love the fair but I can't say I love getting there. It's a 22.5 hour journey from Melbourne, Australia, which is enough to test the patience even of a bookworm.

By my calculations, I'll have flown 15,885 kilometres (9871 miles) by the time I turn up to the 22nd International Rights Directors Meeting on the 14 October. And then, of course, I have to turn around to do the whole trip in reverse on the 19th. (At least it's all downhill!)

I normally feel pretty sorry for myself until I meet a New Zealander - they have even further to travel. So my questions are: how far are you traveling to get the fair this year, or what is the furthest you've ever traveled to get there? And by what means? Feel free to share.

Junot Diaz Wins Dayton Peace Prize

...but is it one prize too many?

Junot Diaz is quickly becoming Michael Phelps of American fiction. Like Phelps, the American swimmer who famously took home 8 gold medals at this year’s Beijing Olympics, Junot Diaz The Dominican-American novelist has already won two major US fiction prizes – the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award – as well as the John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize for his novel The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao. Today, he can add to his collection the 2008 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The Prize is awarded for “Celebrating the power of literature to promote peace and non-violent conflict resolution.” It was founded in 2006 as an offshoot of the Dayton Peace Prize, commemorating the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords ending the war in Bosnia.

As I’m serving on the committee of judges for a different book prize this year – The Dylan Thomas Prize – and we’re going to be selecting the shortlist on Wednesday, I’ve been dwelling on the question of what criteria should prizes be judged beyond the criteria laid out by the prizes guidelines.

In the case of the DTP, I have come to the conclusion that the 60,000 pound award is just as much to applaud a writer for the book they’ve written, as to give them the opportunity to write more. To me it’s saying “I want to read more from this writer."

In the case of the Dayton Prize, Diaz more than deserving– his book concerns the brutal legacy of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and its aftermath of those who lived to tell about it.

I only wonder if the judging committee might have considered just how many awards a book has already garnered before making a final decision?

Surely, giving the prize to Diaz is guaranteed to get coverage. I only worry that it’s a symptom of self perpetuating cycle that’s not necessarily the best for developing readers. It goes without saying that many people will have already read Diaz's book and will not turn to the book for it having won this award alone. The runner up in the fiction category, Daniel Alarcon’s “Lost City Radio” is another fine book and one that would surely have benefitted from an added boost in publicity.

Or to use a yet another sports analogy: It’s a bit like the LA Galaxy paying $250 million to recruit David Beckham to play soccer in America, when what the sport really needs to create a new, homegrown star.

Then again, all my concerns may be besides the point. A good book deserves as much recognition as can be mustered. After all, this year’s Dayton Peace Price for nonfiction was Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying – which also, as it happened, won a National Book Critic’s Circle Award last year as well.

But you us, what do you think? Is piling prizes on a single book redundant for readers?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Awards for children's books

If you're looking to buy rights to 'quality' children's books (anyone brave enough to suggest a definition for 'quality'?), knowing a book has already received the imprimatur of an award is always a good start. The US has its Newbery and Caldecott Medals, the UK has its Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, and Germany has the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis. There are countless others.

If you're looking at Australian and New Zealand books, the two major children's books awards to look for are the Children's Book Council of Australia Awards and the New Zealand Post Awards respectively. (There are plenty of other awards, of course, but these ones tend to generate significant sales.)

The winners of these two awards have been announced in the past six weeks and are well worth a look. As happens from time to time, one of the Australian winners has caused a bit of a fuss, this time for including swear words. It's enough to make me go out and buy a copy.

What children's book awards make a difference to what you read or publish? I'd be keen to hear.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

New Orleans Lives! Ignatius J. Reilly Defeats Gustav

Nearly three full years ago, I wrote about the statue of Ignatius J. Reilly -- the hero from John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ''A Confederacy of Dunces" -- surviving Hurricane Katrina.

So, please, someone explain to me why it is that it seems only hurricanes with European names trying to destroy New Orleans? Katrina...Gustav?

According to the FEMA for Kids web page that explains how hurricanes are named, the names must be either French, Spanish or English (all the languages of the Caribbean), but isn't Gustav distinctly Swedish? Hmmmm...did you also know that a particularly devastating hurricane has it's name "retired," like a Hall of Fame baseball player might have their jersey number retired.

In my experience, most anyone whose visited New Orleans has fallen in love with the city. For starters, it's helluva lot of fun: The food is phenomenal, the music is great and there are innumerable other unmentionable temptations.

But don't forget: NO is also one of the best book towns in the US, with more than it's share of world class bookstores, including Maple Street Book Shop (check out their homage to Walker Percy), the Garden District Book Shop, Octavia Books and Faulkner House Books.

After Katrina, the bookstores were among the first businesses to reopen after the storm and did a roaring business as residents sought out material to take their minds off their tragedy and tried to restock their libraries. (Katrina also forced the closure of Beacoup Books, may it rest in peace and the the Afro-American Book Stop, which reopened only two months ago).

Fortunately for us all, Gustav spared the city and Ignatious J. Reilly remains in his hat and scarf, bag in hand, waiting for his mother, still vigilant over the city he both he helped to define.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A world without books is closer than you think

Like many countries around the world, Australia has its 'first people'- the indigenous people collectively known as the Aborigines. The disadvantages faced by this minority group (which constitutes about 2.5% of the Australian population) are a matter of record, and arise from many factors - social disadvantage, geographical remoteness, lack of appropriate educational and health infrastructure, and so forth.

One of the many challenges Aboriginal children can face is a lack of basic English literacy. An Aboriginal child may speak several indigenous languages and yet struggle to achieve competence in English, partly because they often have no access to books. That's right, thousands of children with no access to books in a first world country.

A few years back one Australian bookseller - Suzy Wilson of Riverbend Books in Brisbane - decided to do something about it by starting a reading challenge to raise money for indigenous literacy. Kids paid money to enter the challenge, and then read 10 books during a designated period to complete the challenge. The money raised went to purchase books for disadvantaged Aboriginal children.

The following year, Riverbend included adults in the challenge and then went national a year later, as booksellers across the country took to the idea.

Two years on, and this year (today in fact), Australia is celebrating its second national Indigenous Literacy Day. Supported by both the Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Publishers Association, the Day will see Australians encouraged to buy books from participating booksellers, who will give at least 5% of their income from the day's trading to the project. A national program of events will help to raise awareness, and last week booksellers were invited to the home of our Prime Minister, The Lodge in Canberra, for an audience with the PM's wife, Therese Rein (who I guess is Australia's First Lady, or as near as we come to one). This year's event will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As a first world country, you'd think this is the least Australia ought to be doing, and you'd be right. But at least it's happening, and all thanks to one visionary bookseller.