Category Archives: international literature

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Big in Japan (and Germany)

A career in publishing typically involves a lot of twists and turns, both for the professionals like editors and agents, as well as for writers themselves. This weekend, the Times magazine shared the amusing story of David Gordon, a (sorry, David) midlist author who suddenly found that his novel The Serialist was a huge hit in Japan, culminating in a trip to Tokyo where he got the royal treatment from an adoring press.

Reading Gordon’s story, it put me in mind of an author I used to work with at Putnam, Royce Buckingham. Like The Serialist, Royce’s debut novel, Demonkeeper, did well enough to get a second book signed up, but for some reason, the book became a huge hit in Germany. In fact, Royce was commissioned to write two sequels for Random House Germany, which they duly translated into German–at their cost.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Well, for one, I hope it explains why we agents fight to retain foreign rights as much as we can. But I think the larger point is that for authors, you never know where you might find an audience, and in the age of Globalization, it’s a good idea for authors to have the international market in mind–even if the results might feel a little Spinal Tap-ish at times…

 

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From Sea to Shining Sea

I like to listen to podcasts on my morning commute. I’m a big fan of Book Riot, Bookrageous, Books on the Nightstand, NPR: Books…oh, did I mention they’re all bookish podcasts? Don’t worry, the newest one to the rotation doesn’t even have “Book” in the title:  The Readers (gotcha!). I enjoy this one because a) one of the hosts is British, and British accents are a pleasant thing to hear when you’re jammed on the subway too early in the morning and b) they often discuss books that aren’t on my radar.

For the most recent episode, Simon and Thomas made lists of the ten books that they felt most represented their countries. Their discussion was lots of fun – I happen to think Thomas had the rougher task, considering how much larger the US is than the UK. But I found Simon’s list the most interesting, because I tend to picture Britain in very broad strokes – London, Dublin, and Edinburgh,  Heathcliffe wailing on the moors and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. I never think about the unique personalities of Bath, Bristol, Manchester, let alone the truth vs. the stereotypes of those reasons. So it was fascinating to hear Simon describe various regions of his country and the books he loves that speak for each.

And, of course, it was fun to analyze and second-guess Thomas’ list of books to for the United States. Sure, there’s some fantastic choices on there, but also some glaring oversights. Hello, Middlesex by Geoffrey Eugenides is not only a classic Detroit book, but also a searing portrayal of the 20th-century immigrant experience! And I don’t know how you can pick two books for California without including John Updike. But I suppose we would all have lists that look very different, because we each have our own unique set of connections to our homeland.

What book best represents your part of the country?

Do you know of an awesome podcast I should add to my lineup?

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The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!

Well, I guess it’s karma that after ignoring poor Jim Crace for all these many years, I’m now mentioning him in two blog posts in a row (though I still haven’t read HARVEST–bad, bad, bad). But of course, we must discuss the news that the Man Booker prize will be open to American authors next year—a move that Crace does not favor.

So, whaddaya think? Is it a good idea to include Americans and make it a truly international prize? Or, given the constraints we have on our own prizes like the NBA, should Booker remain closed to us Yanks?

I will say, it’s amusing to see so much hue and cry over the rules of a contest, much less who actually wins. And it seems like there’s a presupposition here that opening the doors to Americans means an American will win. Surely that’s possible, but can you really picture an American author beating a Brit on their home turf? To me, it seems more likely we’ll get a short-list nominee or two, and then a British author will gloriously be crowned the winner. In fact…maybe it’s all just a big plot to boost British literary self-worth at America’s expense?Very clever, Mr. Booker, very clever…

Okay, paranoid conspiracies aside, I’d love to know—should the USA be Man Bookers or not?

Not only do the French not get fat, understand the subtle arts of seduction, scarf-tying, gastronomy and most recently (per Bringing up Bebe) parenting,  it seems that even the Gallic booksellers are in a better spot than their American colleagues http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/books/french-bookstores-are-still-prospering.html?_r=1.  Although I am skeptical of the many hyperbolic  claims associated with French culture—Americans have a peculiar love hate relationship with the French (remember “freedom fries?”) that often renders the land of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in a less than accurate light, it does seem that French booksellers, thanks to  legal price-fixing (no collusion charges here!)  and government subsidies, do enjoy a considerable advantage over our anemic and Amazon-eviscerated ecosystem. Depending on your politics, the French respect for/protection of booksellers epitomizes everything that’s right or wrong with government, but it does mean that the market for books has remained both stable and lively.  From my French clients—who send me photos of reading tours and well attended signings filled with well-dressed people— I get a glimpse of what seems a pre-lapsarian booksellers’ paradise.  Do I romanticize? Mais bien sur.

I’m not sure that given the present climate in the United States that there is really much likelihood that our model will borrow something from the French, but it is, however, interesting to look abroad at a very different literary landscape and indulge in some armchair travel.

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Cover Design

One of the pleasures of working with books is the opportunity to see how different publishing houses and language markets package the same project. Last week, I was admiring the German cover design of a young adult novel that Stacey represents. The US and UK covers were attractive and effective, but the fairytale/art nouveau/Aubrey Beardsley influenced jacket that the German publisher put together was exquisite. Wunderbar. I was ready to learn German just to dig in.

Further to this, the online journal the Millions again features a handy (albeit too brief) side-by-side comparison of US and UK covers for finalists in this year’s Tournament of Books.   Predictably, I find myself gravitating to the American aesthetic. Call me parochial, but cover designs can be more culturally specific than their contents. When I was an editor, the awfulness of UK covers was something of a running joke.   But perhaps that schadenfreude was misplaced. Here, the British designs for The Cat’s Table and the 1Q84 are (I think) far stronger than their American counterparts.

What say you? For those inclined to see even more examples of cross-cultural cover design on display, have a look at:

http://redroom.com/member/dale-estey/blog/different-book-covers-for-us-and-uk-markets

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Turkish Delight

I’m writing this post from Istanbul, where I was fortunate enough to participate, if only briefly and rather marginally, in the frenzy of bibliophilia that is the Istanbul Book Fair. Perhaps more a book bazaar than an international rights fair on the order of Frankfurt or London, it nevertheless provides an excellent immersion into this rich, energetic and fascinating language market. Indeed, I felt increasingly abashed that my knowledge of Turkish fiction begins and ends with Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and Elif Sefak (whose books I have not even read, but plan to). Happily, at my request and over a dizzying array of mezze and kebab, a kindly Istanbul-based agent assembled a brief primer on contemporary Turkish fiction. She recommended that I check out the works of Mario Levi, İhsan Oktay Anar, Tezer Ozlu, and in particular the curiously titled The Garden of Departed Cats by Bilge Karasu. In addition to Turkish colleagues, I also met editors and agents from all over the world, and had an opportunity to compare notes on subjects familiar (the meteoric rise of the e-book, the role of Amazon.com) and less so (the fixed prices of books in many European countries). It’s always refreshing—and often reassuring—to see that despite the considerable challenges it faces, book culture is not only surviving, but adapting and thriving, throughout the world.

Title Help

Since I am short on time and in need of assistance, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone, blog about what I’m working on, and enlist any help you might offer.
Right now, I am scouring the works of the Russian poets Pushkin and Lermontov in hopes of finding a phrase that might serve as a title for novel that I sold, an epic tale set in the Imperial Court of Russia. As I try out various phrases, it’s once again clear that finding a suitable title is tricky business. The book was originally published in French, but like so many direct translations, its title (All the Honor of Men), which is taken from a quote, does not quite work in English. It also sounds a bit too masculine for a work of historical fiction that has at its heart as star-crossed set of lovers as ever existed.

I’d like something that sings, zings, and otherwise announces itself as a humdinger of a title. Since I can’t ask that you read the book (well, not at this point anyway) I’d love to hear your nominations for recent terrific titles. Maybe your suggestion will inspire a breakthrough!

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A Book in That

In all the flap over the National Book Awards and the Chime/Shine mix-up, which made Laura Miller’s critical piece in Salon appear rather kindly, I forgot to perform a little happy dance in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded jointly to three women (none mistakenly): Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee; and Yemeni pro-democracy activist Tawakkul Karman. Their award was a bright spot in an otherwise grim news cycle, and I’ve tried to spend a bit of my spare time getting to know their respective stories. To that end, I just watched the documentary about Leymah Gbowee, Pray the Devil back to Hell, which is presently being streamed on PBS. http://video.pbs.org/video/2155873888/ Watch it if you can. It’s an extraordinary, powerful, gut-wrenching story. That Gbowee should have been inspired (or approached) to write a book about her experience was only right, I just wish I had something to do with it.  I was interested to note that Gbowee’s memoir, Mighty be Our Powers, is being published by Beast Books, the publishing division of the Daily Beast. Good for Tina Brown. I hope it sells like mad.

In any case, watching the documentary meant that I could officially stop thinking like an agent, which is to say, wondering, “Is there a book in that?” In this case, the answer was yes and it was already written. It can be a funny lens through which to view the world, and every so often it’s nice to switch it off. I imagine writers are similarly afflicted.  Do you view your day to day life in terms of writing projects?

eBooks in the EU

Looking around for book-related news this morning, I found this short piece in the New York Times (sigh—just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in) about how the ebook market in Europe hasn’t really taken off yet.

Frankly, I was a little surprised—not that I really thought all that much about European ebooks, but the whole ebook conversation often makes it seem like international borders are a thing of the past. Clearly, that’s not the case, especially since it sounds like the EU is where American publishers were a few years ago in terms of pricing models and how to deal with Amazon.

What’s more intriguing to me is that Europeans aren’t making eReaders available the way Amazon and Apple have pushed them on the American public. I just remember visiting Europe about 10 or 15 years ago, when cell phones weren’t yet ubiquitous in the States, and being shocked at how everyone seemed to have a phone to their ear—and how every advert seemed to be one pay-as-you-go plan or another. In that case, it took the US a few years to catch up on cell phone sales and usage. Yet now, it seems like we’re the ones ahead of the curve on eReaders.

Any thoughts as to the reasons for the discrepancy? Do you think it’s due to the scarcity of readers and titles as the Times reports (i.e., supply), or does it have more to do with European reading habits and tastes (demand)? I’d be particularly curious to hear from readers abroad about their experiences—surprisingly, the Times article avoids the selective anecdotes that usually inflate their publishing articles. Any stories to share?

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Reading Egypt

Like many people, I’ve been riveted to the reports coming out of Egypt this past week. Prior to rejoining DGLM, I lived and worked in Cairo for several years, and I have watched, electrified, exhilarated and terrified at the history-making events unfolding in Egypt. Tahrir Square, which has been the nerve center of the protests, is not far from where my office at the American University in Cairo Press was located. Indeed, the press’s proximity to the demonstrations made it an easy target. The offices were ransacked, and the looters left a path of pointless destruction in their wake.  I feel terrible for my former officemates but far more relieved that they themselves are all safe.

Internet connectivity was restored yesterday (alarming and outrageous that the internet, along with cell phone service, can be summarily “switched off””) so I was, at long last, able to communicate with friends and colleagues whose first-hand reports were welcome after so much anxious speculation.  Yesterday’s violence—clashes between anti-government protesters and pro Mubarak “supporters” widely believed to be security forces brought in to incite violence—was deplorable, and the potential for greater bloodshed remains. While it is impossible to predict what will transpire in the coming weeks (it is my fervent wish that Egypt will get the democratic, free and fair government its people desire and deserve), it is possible to better understand the social and political forces that brought tens of thousands of ordinary people to go to such extraordinary measures.

Given that this is a blog devoted to publishing and not politics, I’ll leave the analysis to people better qualified to make it (but check out Mona El Tahawy), the reportage to the people actually in Cairo (worth reading the TheArabist.net), and recommend a brief reading list, one that can provide some context for the extraordinary events of the last ten days.  The following books are by no means a comprehensive list, but they do represent a good and engrossing starting point to getting a bead on Egypt.

In fiction, the late Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Karnak Café. His Cairo trilogy is better known, but this slim volume looks at the repressive political atmosphere of the Nasser era and could well have been written last year.

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, which shines a revelatory light on the fictional inhabitants, rich and poor, virtuous and venal, of an actual Cairo apartment building

Sonallah Ibrahim’s ZAAT, a darkly funny political satire of one Egyptian woman’s misadventures under three regimes.

In nonfiction, Galal Amin’s Whatever Happened to the Egyptians: Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present, a lively and lighthearted (really) discussion of the vast changes Egypt has undergone. Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak by Tarek Osman, and Arthur Goldschmidt’s Modern Egypt: The Making of a Nation State, both of which are thoughtful, comprehensive and readable.

Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations. Meanwhile, I’ll hope that Egypt’s next chapter—the one now being written—is long on triumph and short on tragedy.