Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And a Happy Discounted Closing Down New Year to you all

I thought I’d end the year by giving you a little glimpse of what my particular patch of London looks like. It’s representative of much of the UK at the moment, and isn’t a particularly pretty sight, I’m afraid. Whether it’s possible for an entire country to go into administration I’m not sure, but there are times when it feels as if such an eventuality is just around the corner.

(Apologies - I slipped a little cartoon in there too, by my own, dreadful hand. You see, that's the credit crunch for you: you can't even get proper cartoonists anymore)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas wishes

A very Merry Christmas/happy holidays to all the readers of this blog, and also to my delightful and knowledgeable fellow bloggers. What an extraordinary year it's been. I'm off to the beach for a couple of days.

(This illustration comes from Le costume de Pere Noël by Davide Cali and Éric Heliot, published by Éditions Sarbacane in France and as Santa's Suit by my company in Australia.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Signs of Christmas

So the e-mails are slowing up; the ‘out of office’ bounce-backs have started; and the last round-robin electronic greetings cards have arrived. It must be Christmas. Publishers are ‘in the country’, to use the quaint phrase that is still heard in London every now and then - as if we all have second homes in Suffolk and Norfolk - and all eyes are on the retailers for whom it is anything but quiet: even the worst Christmas will still be the busiest time of the year.

A quick ‘eye’ survey in my local, suburban London high street today showed no queue in Waterstone’s, but a massive one in HMV. Is there any book that has the ‘must have’ appeal of the latest PS3 game? Play Station, Xbox and Wii are all cited as reasons some boys do not read; slightly ironic, then, that it is Waterstone’s parent company, HMV, which sells all those items.

How booksellers must wish they had their own set of Play Station-style controllers at this time of year: press X for increased sales, ‘square’ for instant stock replenishment; and R1 to cancel returns. Perhaps such an invention is in development....Wishing you all a Happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Still some heat in Christmas sales

While my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are bracing themselves for a chilly Christmas, here in Melbourne it's 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and the weather forecasters are predicting a cloud-free 28 degrees for Christmas Day - good beach weather.

There's another way in which Australia appears to be differing from other climes: the retail economy. Whilst it's patchy out there, book retail sales seem, anecdotally, to be keeping up to expectations. Trade magazine Bookseller+Publisher's annual pre-Christmas survey of booksellers reports that 75% of booksellers think sales this year are higher or the same as 2007, with only 24% reporting a drop in sales. (Last year, 18% reported a drop - not a dramatic difference year-on-year, given the global economic brouhaha.)

The Australian Government is trying its best to make us spend up big this Christmas, by sending those of us who receive some form of social security payment (excepting unemployment benefit) a nice fat cheque for AUD$1000. Sales of games consoles reportedly surged by 39% after the measure was announced (indicating where the hearts of Australian consumers truly lie), but no doubt some of the benefits are trickling down to booksellers too (books on how use a Nintendo Wii, for example.)

Given that Australia's second-largest bookselling chain Dymocks this month allowed one of its board members, former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, to go public telling everyone that books are too expensive here, perhaps we shouldn't be too upset.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Whose Random House Still Stands?

Earlier this year when Houston was hit by Hurricane Ike, the day after there was so much debris scattered around it wasn't immediately clear whose house was standing and whose was destroyed. It's a bit like that in publishing today. Now that some of the lights are coming back on after last months Black Wednesday carnage and it's trailing storms, whose house still stands is becoming more apparent.

When Random House tore apart its Bantam Doubleday Dell division, placing Nan Talese's august imprint under the Knopf umbrella with Sonny Mehta, and splitting the rest between Gina Centrello's Random House and Jenny Frost's Crown. The question remained -- who would remain in their jobs?

Well, we all know that Irwyn Applebaum was outsted Steve Rubin is negotiating a new position. Now it is clear at least one esteemed editor, Susan Kamil, has been retained -- and promoted to boot. Kamil has been given the title of editor-in-chief of Random House, on top of her duties running Dial Press (the imprint she relaunched). Kamil, who has edited a wide variety number of blockbusters and award winners -- from the Shopaholic seriesa and Sting's memoirs to Justin Cronin's PEN/Hemingway Award Winner Mary and O'Neil -- is well liked and known for spending freely for books she desires (though that has tapered off somewhat in recent years). Commercial and hip, Kamil might be able to inject "big" Random with a little more adrenaline.

Blockbuster editors Kate Medina and Bob Loomis will have autonomy to report to RH head Gina Centrello.

Still, the Random House refurbishment is likely to be source of the most job cuts of all -- a friend inside the House says that everyone "is extremely worried and no one knows if they're going to have a job."

Still, it's the day (and week and month) after and there's still a lot of questions to be answered.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Take-out drama

So the Man Group, sponsors of the Man Booker Prize, has been hit to the tune of $350m in the Bernie Madoff scandal That’s pizzas-to-go for 300 at the Guildhall in October then.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Anxious times in the high street

Desperate measures: WHSmith is trying to kick-start Christmas

It’s not looking good out there. An air of desperation hangs over the UK high street. The screaming window above – at WHSmith – is typical of the mood, as retailers desperately try to kick-start Christmas. Waterstone’s sales for the six months to 25 October were down 3.8%, with like for likes down 1.4% (allowing for the previous year’s release of Harry Potter 7). The total market is down 0.8% by value and 0.3% by volume. Woolworths – which should perform like WHSmith with books, but has never pulled it off – may now largely disappear from UK high streets and some 700 staff have already lost their jobs at its supermarket supplier EUK. Every week brings an announcement of a new recruitment freeze or salary freeze at a major house – Penguin was the last – while, on a much smaller scale, there have been redundancies at New Holland and Anova.

This is the real effect of the banking crisis and it’s not pleasant. Yes, books do remain good value and perhaps the increase in sales of the much-maligned celebrity memoirs bears this out. But it is making the entire UK book industry uncomfortable at the moment. Waterstone’s MD Gerry Johnson bravely says it can still be a “vintage Christmas”. We all hope so, or January could be very cold indeed.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The 'Arabic Booker' grows - despite Syria

Championing Arabic literature: Booker Prize Foundation Chairman Jonathan Taylor, centre, with judges Youmna El Eid (left) and Mohammad Al Murr

The Syrian government would seem to be the body spoiling the mutual understanding and international exchange that lies at the heart of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the ‘Arabic Booker’ ( The 2009 shortlist was announced at a press conference at the Royal Festival Hall today at which the Syrian publisher of one of the shortlisted books, Fawwaz Haddad’s The Unfaithful Translator (Riad el Rauyyes) said the title had already been banned in his homeland. Last year, the first year of the prize, the same fate befell In Praise of Hatred (Amisa) by the Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa.

Putting that somewhat important point to one side, this was a positive occasion at which it did genuinely seem as if the world of books could lead to a useful exchange of ideas and world views that would increase understanding (and, dare one say it, peace). The other shortlisted titles are: Hunger (Al Adab), by Mohammad Al Bisatie (Egypt); The American Granddaughter (Al Jadid), by Inaam Kachachi (Iraqi); The Time of White Horses (Arab Scientific Publishers) by Ibrahim Nasrallah (Jordan-Palestine); The Scents of Marie-Claire (Al Adab), by Al-Habib Al-Salmi (Tunisia); and Beelzebub (Dar al Shorouk) by Yusuf Zeydan (Egypt).

It is odd to be at an event at which the list of authors is so unfamiliar, yet surely The American Granddaughter will find an English language publisher. It tells the story of an Iraqi-born girl who leaves the country for the US when she is 13, but returns as a young woman to be an interpreter. She welcomes the US action of 2003, but has qualms about the target. She has spent much of her life drinking Coke, the author observes, but has also “drank from the Tigris and Euphrates”.

There is so much happening with books in the Middle East. The Abu Dhabi Book Fair next March now has a geographic – and calendar – neighbour with the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai in February; the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, General Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, is lavishing money on the book trade in an effort to eradicate illiteracy; HarperCollins and Random House have just opened offices in the region, partly helped by favourable rates offered by the Sheik; and Bloomsbury is opening in Dohar.

The aim of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is to “bring the best of contemporary Arabic fiction to a wider public,” said Jonathan Taylor, Chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation and one of the trustees of the IPAF. It also seeks to encourage more reading and writing of good literature in the Arab world itself. This is a laudable aim: the more the west understands about Arabic cultures – and vice versa – the better. Yes, there are problems with Syria, but they mustn’t be allowed to spoil the party.

Vale Dorothy Porter

I'm very glum at having to report the untimely death of Australia's most widely-read poet, Dorothy Porter, who died yesterday of complications due to cancer. She was 54.

She's probably best known for her lesbian crime thriller in verse, The Monkey's Mask, which was made into a film in 2000 starring, of all people, Kelly 'Witness' McGillis. I published the book in Australia while at Hyland House Publishing, and it was picked up around the world - Serpent's Tail published the UK edition, Random House New Zealand took it on, Arcade Publishing did the US hardback and Residenz Verlag did the German language edition.

Before The Monkey's Mask, Dorothy's audience was confined mostly to literary types, but afterwards she reached the kind of audience (in Australia at least) that any novelist would be pleased with. Subsequent verse novels included What a Piece of Work, Wild Surmise and, most recently El Dorado, about a serial child-killer. Her works were consistently serious contenders for Australia's major literary awards, some of which she won, and she also wrote libretti and collaborated with legendary New Zealand songwriter Tim 'Split Enz/Crowded House' Finn.

I have a soft spot for her first novel, Akhenaten, which was first published by the University of Queensland Press (UQP) back in 1992, before I knew her. It was this remarkable work I witnessed her reading at the National Word Festival in Canberra in 1993 and which first made me want to publish her.

I said as much to her agent and she mentioned that she had a 'crime novel in verse' that UQP were in two minds about. I asked to see the manuscript and took it down to a local cafe with a poetry-loving friend to read it, along with about 30 other poetry manuscripts, most of which were indescribably awful. After twenty minutes of reading it, I'd read a stack of pages and was enthralled. It was a racy read, accessible, erotic, dark and not at all the sort of thing you associate with 'capital P' Poetry.

I managed to convince my partners to take on the book (one thought the book 'salacious', as I recall) and we were off. There was a bit of an edit - there were a few gaps in the plot which she filled with aplomb - but I knew we had a hit on our hands when our warehouse manager rang to ask, in a rather shocked voice, if I'd read page 42 (which is somewhat erotic). I was delighted because it had meant he'd read 41 pages of poetry to get to it.

The Monkey's Mask received rave reviews and we subsequently published Crete, and reissued an earlier collection, Driving Too Fast. Finally in 1998 we got the rights to Akhenaten. At that point, I left Hyland House and Dorothy moved on to Picador and further success.

Dot was a fine reader of her own work. I could only find one video of her reading on the internet. It's 'Hot Date' from her collection Crete, which I published back in 1996. It's sadly appropriate given the circumstances.

Vale, Dot.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire Challenges American Bias

I’m probably not alone in revealing that one of my great pleasures when traveling abroad is browsing in foreign bookstores for books I’ve never heard of before. Most European airports and train stations have a generous stock of UK books on sale – many that never find a US publisher. At the Hauptbahnhof during this past Frankfurt Book Fair, I picked up a copy of Jed Mercurio’s novel Ascent – a terrific fictional account of the life of a Russian MiG fighter pilot turned cosmonaut, one that offers a plausible alternative history of the space race.

Here’s where I’m the rube: The book did appear in the States, in March of 2007, published by Simon & Schuster. I missed it – drat! Why? Likely in part because it had yet to come out in paperback, which often gives a book gets a second chance to be noticed. (Ascent is scheduled to appear in paperback in June of 2009).

Years ago I had another “discovery” -- Vikas Swarup’s “Q&A” -- which I bought at the Dubai airport in 2007, having failed to buy a copy I’d seen in Cape Town the year before at Exclusive Books – where it won the prize as the top book of the year.

It too was a terrific read – as many of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of other readers across the world could attest. According to Swarup’s official site, he was in 2007 “France’s favourite novelist” and his book was voted, again by Exclusive Books, among the “100 Books to Read Before You Die.” Ken Follett, a man who has been known to sell a book or two, even chose it as the “One Book for Stevenage” (Ha!)

Apparently, it even won a US Audie Award in 2006 for best fiction audiobook – which made me think..had it already been published in the US? Yes, as a matter of fact it had.

I’d like to say, it’s just me who is missing these things, but I fear that it’s not. When the hardcover was published in the US by Scribner in July 2005, it sold a pittance – again, so few that Scribner didn't schedule a paperback until more than three years later (it appeared this August).

Now, with the film adaptation by Danny Boyle arriving in theaters and being touted as a likely Best Picture nominee – the book has been rechristened with its Hollywood title, “Slumdog Millionaire,” and is all over the bookstores.

I only wonder what was missing for American readers the first time around. The novel was written in English, so there were no translation delays, as with someone like Steig Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it’s sequels were already huge sellers before they got the US.

Could it be a US bias against ethnically Indian writers? On the surface, no. Look at the success of someone like Jumpa Lahiri or Amitav Ghosh or Manil Suri.

I would instead argue that the bias against Swarup or someone like Chetan Bhagat – whose One Night at the Call Center is perhaps the bestselling book ever published in India –is not due to their ethnicity, but to the type of books they write. Ghosh, Suri, and Lahiri (and there are numerous others) are all capital “L” literary writers. Swarup and Bhagat write a pop, mass market sensibility, one that attracts a larger, mass readership. And, not coincidentally, both of these books initially failed to find readers when initially published in the US.

I wonder if in the US we expect foreign books (save for mystery and crime fiction) to be capital “S” serious stuff.

Why? I suspect it may a symptom of the way the foreign books are published and promoted. That is…not at all.

Could populist, pop foreign writers – translated or non-translated – resonate with the same US readers who buy their books principally in airports and railroads? I certainly think so, but it would take some canny marketing and promotion to make it work.

That said, it takes only one to prove an exception. Maybe that one is Swarup’s Q&A, errrrr, Slumdog Millionaire.

Oh, and if you haven't seen the'll be utterly charmed. It is the best movie of the year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hatchet job

I note, in the latest publishing cutback, that the English-speaking dominions of Hachette Livre are to lose the 'Livre' in the company name - a massive 38.4% cut in name length.

According to CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson, the move is designed to ‘simplify communication and give complete clarity to the name of each operating company'. Of course, it may equally have to do with the fact that no-one except a francophone can correctly pronounce the word.

Still, is this best time to be spending cash on a rebranding exercise? Perhaps Hachette should have followed Paul Simon's advice which is, if I recall correctly, 'there are 50 ways to love your livre'.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bhopal novel to be filmed

Indra Sinha’s Man Booker shortlisted novel, Animal’s People (Simon & Schuster) which won the 2008 Commonwealth Prize for ‘the best novel from Europe and South Asia’, is to be filmed. Director Michael Anderson has commissioned Sinha to write the screenplay with filming expected to begin in November 2009. Although the novel was a moderate success, the film could well bring the whole ugly story of Bhopal to prominence again. The disaster remains largely a forgotten tragedy. On the night of 2-3 December 1984 a gas leak at the Union Carbide plant spewed 40 tones of methane isocyanate over the city. According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal’s (BMA) website , half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. The BMA asserts that Union Carbide and its owner, Dow Chemical, which is based in Midland, Michigan, continues to deny responsibility for the poisoning and refuses to clean up the site.

Sinha, who is of British and Indian descent, made money in advertising and has now devoted his life to helping those affected by the disaster and in trying to make Dow Chemical take proper responsibility for the tragedy. He wrote in the Guardian: ‘Under the ‘polluter pays’ principle enshrined in both Indian and US law, Union Carbide is responsible for cleaning up the contamination and compensating the thousands whose lives have been ruined. In buying Union Carbide's assets, Dow also acquired its liabilities. Dow set aside $2.3bn to settle Union Carbide's US asbestos liabilities. How then can it refuse to accept Union Carbide's Indian liabilities?’

The legal arguments and claims and counter claims have been batted back and forth for the last 20 years, and one could spend weeks on the Net reading them. All the while of course, people who have no access to lawyers, who are dirt poor, who aren’t sophisticated, well-off westeners, who aren’t glamorous in any way, who do not have any ‘importance’ in the eyes of the world, continue to suffer.

The whole sorry mess has something of Erin Brokovich about it. Sinha's campaign is admirable and it will be fascinating to see what effect the film has.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On compliance - and 'mis mem'

You would think that every bookshop today would have copies of Constance Briscoe’s memoir Ugly (Hodder) in their windows or front-of-store, following the author’s victory in court against her mother who was suing her for libel But if a straw poll taking in my local Waterstone’s, WH Smith and Books etc is anything to go by, you would be wrong. The reason may be innocent enough: the shops are out of stock. But I suspect that it might be the straitjacket of compliance at play here. Windows and front-of-store are sold months in advance in the chains, allowing very little room for flexibility. A publisher does not want to pay serious money for window space/table space, to find that it has been usurped by a backlist title that happens to have been on the News the night before. But there is an absurdity to this: the one book you should be able to see everywhere this week is Briscoe’s Ugly because it has enjoyed such massive publicity. This is where the independents are so much freer, so much more nimble.

The case has brought the subject of misery memoirs to the fore, with Nielsen recording a decline in sales in the genre. The area has been over-published, with Smiths even having a section marked ‘Troubled Lives’ now. There is also a uniformity in cover design bordering on the comical, despite the subject matter.

One forgotten title in amidst the scores is Carry me Home by the English writer Catherine Lucas This was quietly published in 2005 by Michael Joseph with a tasteful – if somewhat irrelevant – jacket. It is an outstanding spiritual memoir that ranks alongside the finest of religious writing. The title belongs in the religious and mind/body/spirit sections, yet was usually placed in the biography sections.

Having ‘failed’ in hardback, Penguin then gave it the ‘mis mem’ treatment with an eye on the supermarkets. Though somewhat jarring to those of us who had read the book, it was an understandable move: it could have got the title into Tesco et al. Sadly, this failed too and now the title hovers on going out of print.

For what it’s worth, I’ll give it a five star recommendation here. Lucas was met by her mother from school for a driving lesson. She asked her mum to take the wheel while she took off her jumper. The car careered off the road into a ditch. Her mother was killed; Lucas was unharmed. Grief and guilt sat within her into her adult life, with the most extraordinary consequences. This is an unusual, special book, one that has suffered from being incorrectly published by the wrong house: hopefully it will be picked up by someone else one day.