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By Porter Anderson for Publishing Perspective April 24, 2018

International officials and media gather on World Book Day to open the 18th UNESCO World Book Capital in Athens, celebrating what Greece’s Prokopis Pavlopoulos calls ‘the powerful potential’ of books.

‘The Common Heritage of the World’

With quietly moving devotion, leaders of Greece, Guinea, the United Arab Emirates, UNESCO, and the International Publishers Association, have opened Athens’ year as World Book Capital.

On Monday evening, World Book Day (April 23), the magnificent Acropolis Museum was closed early so that Prokopis Pavlopoulos, president of Greece, could join George Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, in consecrating the country’s and the city’s unified intention to produce more than 240 events between now and this time next year—an international promotion of books and a nationwide engagement in reading.

The invited dignitaries, guests, and media members passed through security screenings into the eerily silent museum, with its patient treasures from the Parthenon and surrounding excavations. In this land of Homer, everyone smiled at the mayor’s first line: “The question is not why Athens has been chosen for this honor, but why it took so long for it to happen.”

Of course, “so long” has almost no meaning in the vast millennia of Greece’s history, luminous each night as the glassed top floor of the museum glows to life, answering the lit columns atop the Acropolis. The World Book Capital program’s concept is only some 22 years old, having been launched in 1996 at the suggestion of the International Publishers Association (IPA). In 2001, Madrid became the first city to call itself a World Book Capital.

And over the years, a symbolic handoff tradition has been growing in which each successive city passes the baton to the next, not unlike the ceremony seen annually at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, as one Guest of Honor country gives over to the next.

In Athens, Conakry’s chief of staff Moundjour Cherif was present, to hand off to Athens. And representing the “other side” of the transfer, the UAE’s Sheikha Bodour bint Al Qasimi was there to honor Athens—which on World Book Day 2019 will hand off to Sharjah, the first Arabian Gulf city named a World Book Capital.

Bodour was accompanied by Mohammed Meer Al Raesi, the UAE’s ambassador to Athens, recently apppointed.

Sharjah has helped support the restoration of Guinea’s Djibril Tamsir Niane Library, and also has contributed to textbook provision and distribution in the country, as well as participating in the donation of 2,000 much-needed books.

Pavlopoulos: ‘Sacred Space’

Hosted by the Greek journalist and anchorwoman Maria Houkli, the official program was a simple one, set in the nine-year-old museum’s auditorium. The session would end with the music of a flute quartet, but it was memorable chiefly for Pavlopoulos’ impressive, forceful commentary.

“Athens actually merits this honor and we will vindicate the choice of Greece because it is here that the largest library was established, and we should remember that even the Library at Alexandria was a Greek library.”Prokpois Pavlopoulos

Speaking without notes, the Greek president referred to the “sacred space” of the museum, which stands over an excavation of Byzantine-era Athens. He referred us to specific pieces in the museum collection, including a sculpture of Athena from around 468 BC.

“I don’t think there is any work of art,” Pavlopoulos said, “that can represent better what Athens was then and what it aspires to be today.”

The subtext, of course, as the 200 or so invitees in the room knew, was about the Greek government debt crisis that started about the time the new museum was being dedicated and led to 12 wrenching rounds of reforms and international bailouts through 2016.

Today, Athens bustles again with new energy and the ebullient crackle of its famous municiple personality, but the price has been heavy. And it’s easy to see that being selected as World Book Capital is a fine signal of Greece’s return to world society and its rightful cultural leadership.

Pavlopoulos referred to how “It is here that ‘the citizen’ was born”—the concept of democracy’s essential player—and how “the common heritage of the world” is carried forward by each an educated member of a culture, a reader.

“Athens actually merits this honor,” Pavlopoulos said in his resonant basso, “and we will vindicate the choice of Greece because it is here that the largest library was established, and we should remember that even the Library at Alexandria was a Greek library.”

In the digital age, Pavlopoulos said, Greece can do no less than find her footing in delivering to the country’s population and visitors in the next year “the powerful potential that books do possess.”

Borghino and Denison: ‘The Grid’

During the ceremony’s reception on the museum’s terrace in the shadow of the Acropolis and amid late-day breezes from Piraeus, Publishing Perspectives spoke with Ian Denison, UNESCO’s chief of publishing and branding, and José Borghino, IPA’s executive director, about how a World Book Capital is chosen.

The program has moved over the years from Beirut to Ljubljana, from Port Harcourt to Incheon, from Wroclaw to Conackry.

“We have a grid of criteria,” Denison said, “and within the grid, we have sub-criteria. And what we’ve done is make sure that freedom of expression is the highest-rated criterion.” As Borghino explained, the IPA’s leadership in the freedom to publish, with its annual Prix Voltaire for the most courageous champions of expressive rights, is represented in the selection of Greece by a major component of Athens’ program which will address the reading needs of the country’s many refugees.

“In terms of the honor, every country named a World Book Capital appreciates it in a different way and needs different things” from UNESCO, Denison said. “A place like Conakry, for example,” he said, “needs more infrastructure support,” as in the library-rebuilding efforts that Sharjah has assisted Guinea with.

“We felt that in economic times that were so difficult” in Greece, “to be focusing as they were on migrant children and refugees was something quite amazing.”Ian Denison

“While a place like Athens,” Denison said, “doesn’t need that kind of support, it needs recognition of what it’s been through” in the past decade, and that a corner has now been turned.

“We felt that in economic times that were so difficult” in Greece, he said, “to be focusing as they were on migrant children and refugees was something quite amazing.”

“And then Sharjah, of course, is a different story,” Borghino said, with its generation of effort led by its royal family to found a knowledge-based culture on reading and books.

“The story for each World Book Capital,” Borghino said, “is positive. But each is positive in a different way.”

The IPA and UNESCO are joined by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and the International Booksellers Federation in assessing and selecting each year’s World Book Capital, evaluating proposals on the criteria of that grid of considerations.

“It’s actually a very joyous thing,” Denison said. “We’re now about to see what new stories the Athenians are going to come up with in the next year.”

 

by Olivia Snaije Originally published in Perspective Publishing April 19, 2018

In a tightening market for fiction and especially for debut authors looking for that big break, editors can be choosier—and many are more dependent than ever on literary agents to find their next debuts.

Two trends gave a session on debut acquisitions at last week’s London Book Fair special interest. First, the fair’s Author HQ program is smartly including trade authors’ interests, such as placing a first novel. Second, as Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch has pointed out, not only did significant nonfiction deals at LBF this year, but debuts were way down. By Cader’s count, there were 34 debut fiction sales in 2016; 37 in 2017; and only 27 debut fiction deals this year. —Porter Anderson

‘I’ve Pre-Empted Two Books This Year’

A room filled with aspiring writers awaited three editors and a debut author last week at London Book Fair’s session “Why We Commissioned These Debuts.” Speakers included:

• Penguin Random House UK editor Jade Chandler, who handles crime and thrillers for Harvill Secker and Vintage

• Nick Wells, the founding publisher at independent house Flame Tree Publishing, which is to launch an imprint for horror, crime, and science fiction/fantasy in September

• HarperCollins UK editorial director Martha Ashby

• HarperCollins author Sarah J. Harris was on hand to provide the debut writer’s viewpoint

Harris is also published in the States by Simon & Schuster, and she’s written three YA novels under a pseudonym. And she described the comparatively dreamy experience she had in entering the market with The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder.

Having spent nine months writing the book, she said she researched agents and picked out the ones she thought would suit her best. Among them was Jemima Forrester who was starting a new list at David Higham’s agency.

Harris wrote a cover letter, targeted her agents’ list, met Forrester first and signed with her. Once the book was edited, Harris said, Forrester submitted it and the manuscript drew overnight interest from publishers.

Within less than a week, HarperCollins made a bid, which Harris said she knows is unusually fast action.

From an editor’s viewpoint, Harvill Secker’s Chandler said that in a pre-empt, a publisher may “offer quite a lot to the agent because you want the book” to be taken off the table. “But sometimes the agent will have it go to auction. I’ve pre-empted two books this year,” Chandler said, “and it usually involves reading the book overnight. It’s very dramatic and exciting and involves sleepless nights.”

Chandler said that like most editors, she finds authors through literary agents who filter submissions. “It’s quite an old fashioned process,” she said, “but in reality, I’m just one woman and I can only read so much.” Not surprisingly, she said that good relationships with agents become important if an editor is to find the best material.

‘You Know Within a Few Pages If the Writer Can Write’ - Martha Ashby

Martha Ashby is the editor who pre-empted Harris’ book—shutting down all competing offers by striking a deal with the agent. Ashby said she meets with agents and tells them what she’s looking for. She doesn’t read submission letters, she said.

“I want to read the book as someone who doesn’t know what it’s going to be like,” Ashby said. “I want to come at it as a reader would. I think about who the audience is. Is it different from other books in the market? What would the elevator pitch be? If I’m really excited about the book I’ll flag my publisher.

“You know within a few pages if the writer can write. If the voice is great but I don’t know where the story’s going, I’ll still keep reading, bearing in mind that the manuscript has been roughly edited.

“Sometimes an author will need to cut the first few chapters. Once we’re excited about a book we’ll circulate it to sales and marketing and publishers.

“If I can, I tell the publicity and marketing and sales teams about where the book sits in the market because they need to know who the readers are. Are they reading Elle or the Daily Express? Are they on Facebook or on Twitter? Everyone is thinking about how we’d publish the book from their own perspective and from their area.”

While all this is happening, said Ashby, five or 15 other editors are doing the same thing. A book can then go to auction, or be pre-empted, and the process can take between one day to one month, or longer.

“Sometimes agents will want to see a publication pitch,” she said. “How we’ll present the book. The most important thing for an author is to feel like they’ve found the best home for their book.”

For her part as the writer in question, Harris confirmed that the experience at HarperCollins made her feel “like the whole team was onboard with my book from Day One. I had contact with them all.”

‘Headaches and Sleepless Nights’ - Nick Wells

Running a much smaller, independent house, Nick Wells said he goes about things differently at Flame Tree. Editors there feel, he said, that it’s important to engage directly with writers and readers. For this reason, he said he doesn’t rely on literary agents and is open to submissions for periods of time—“which causes headaches and sleepless nights,” he conceded.

“We have short windows for submissions,” he said. And yet, “We [recently] had submissions from 12,000 people and an editorial board of six with some outside readers.” All of which confirmed for him that “there’s no question that the agent route is very helpful.”

As far as submissions go, Wells said that if writers are hungry and know their market, they’d find a way to send him their manuscript.

Searching Out Better Work - Jade Chandler

A relatively new element of the business is the digital visibility authors may have, even if they’re not thinking of it.

Some editors go to blog sites and various social media to look for authors, and many like to see how influential those writers are in the social realm. “If someone isn’t on social media at all,” Chandler said, however, ‘that wouldn’t discourage me.”

The editors agreed that they’re open to the idea of working with self-published authors and that remaining flexible in the industry is important.

And while all the session’s panelists hadn’t directly addressed the title of the session with rationales for precise acquisitions, they did say they’re also trying to get more submissions from a range of writers for diversity. Chandler mentioned Random House’s Write Now program, and Wells said that a more diverse staff is needed if a house is to connect with diverse writers. At HarperCollins, an inclusive hiring scheme has been in place for some time.

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels. She is a contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Art, The Global Post, The New York Times and CNN.

In an interview Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry describes ebooks as ‘exactly the same as print, but electronic.’ The bigger question is whether that’s what consumers want.

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief This article was first published in Publishing Perspective on February 20, 2018.

‘Two Different Geographies’? or Expectations?

Shortly after the International Publishers Association’s biennial world congress left New Delhi, India’s journal Scroll.in ran a controversial interview with France’s Arnaud Nourry to mark the 10th anniversary of Hachette India.

The highly regarded CEO of Lagardère Publishing and Hachette Livre’s empire, Nourry has raised eyebrows in the book publishing industry for seeming to disparage digital publishing’s centerpiece, the ebook, as a “stupid product.”

Needless to say, this has quickly gotten back to Paris, where Nicholas Gary at ActuaLitté on Monday (February 19) asked whether the comment indicated that Nourry was “launching a missile” at the ebook.

In the interview with Scroll.in, Nourry speaks of the “two geographies” where ebooks have differing success. To get at this point, Scroll.in interviewer Harsimran Gill asks whether Nourry sees the ebook market plateauing.

Nourry answers, “There are two different geographies to look at for this. In the US and UK, the ebook market is about 20 percent of the total book market, everywhere else it is 5 percent to 7 percent because in these places the prices never went down to such a level that the ebook market would get significant traction. I think the plateau, or rather slight decline, that we’re seeing in the US and UK is not going to reverse. It’s the limit of the ebook format.”

Nourry goes on in the interview to say, “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.”

His comments also raise the issue that publishers and consumers might have different expectations for the the ebook format.

“We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks—didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, Web sites with our content—we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.”

Could ‘Exactly the Same as Print’ Be Exactly the Point?

“The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience,” Arnaud Nourry

While publishing pundits have been quick to jump on these comments as short-sighted, Nourry does go on to say, “It’s not that we’re against ebooks. People … pay a price that is about 40 percent lower than the print price. And it works. The ebook market has gone down a little bit, not much, from say 25 percent to 20 percent in some countries. There is still a readership for ebooks but at a price that keeps the ecosystem alive.”

It’s clear that, at the right price, the ebook format serves a certain percentage of readers well. In fact, some readers may like the ebook because, as Nourry puts it, “It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic.”

As Nourry says, many efforts at “enhanced ebooks” have been cast aside as expensive experiments that most consumers haven’t warmed up to. And even today’s attempts to bring augmented reality effects into children’s books seem to remain primarily in the novelty bracket.

What the market may have been telling the industry all along was that, for some readers, “electronic” is enough. The values of the ebook for many do lie in the conveniences that are made possible by the electronic element:

• Many ebooks can be stored and read on single or multiple devices.

• An ebook can be acquired in 60 seconds—no waiting for delivery, no travel to a store, no out-of-stock delays.

• An ebook can glow in the dark, change its fonts size, capture quotes, and even share passages.

• An ebook can provide an instantly available dictionary and other resources.

• And an ebook, yes, is normally less expensive, as Nourry is pointing out, than its print counterpart.

This shouldn’t prevent publishers from developing digital approaches, as Nourry advocates for in the interview, “to see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital.” Any format that can move through that marketplace successfully may be worth pursuing.

Big Picture, Little Picture

“Amazon has had a fantastic role to play in the publishing industry. Apart from our little battle, it is a very efficient retailer, able to ship books almost everywhere in the world very quickly. It is a real opportunity for publishers.”Arnaud Nourry

Nourry in his interview tells Gill that on the international scale, 30 percent of Hachette’s business is in French-language content “across France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and other French-speaking countries.” He cites 25 percent of the company’s business in the States and in English-language Canada, with 20 percent “in the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland,” followed by 10 percent in Spanish “and another 10 percent in the rest of the world.”

He speaks highly of Arabic markets and the Russian readership as an interesting target for Hachette. He assesses China right now as “a difficult country.”

And he talks of how the bruising 2014 negotiations with Amazon were worth it because Hachette won the right to set its own prices for ebooks. In fact, he talks of it now as “our little battle”—although it seized the attention of the publishing industry for almost a year and triggered some acrimonious divides.

Today, Nourry sends warm regards to Seattle: “Amazon has had a fantastic role to play in the publishing industry. Apart from our little battle, it is a very efficient retailer, able to ship books almost everywhere in the world very quickly. It is a real opportunity for publishers.

“Google and Facebook are third-party providers for us in terms of advertising and community management, so they don’t have a central role. Of course, Google 10 years ago had the crazy idea of digitizing all books without permission. We collectively fought that and won. Google is good for discovering titles. We don’t use it a lot for advertising or keywords—it’s a tiny partner. Facebook is mostly an advertising channel, as we use other platforms of the same nature. It does not deeply transform our business.”

The nagging sense from this interview, however, is that Nourry and others in the business may be looking for digital to do more than the consumer wants.

The Bookseller’s Philip Jones in his leader piece on Friday (February 16) writes of how travel books have yet to make a good transition to digital formats: “Mobile-screen size, roaming charges, battery life, and the lack of wi-fi in some destinations has given paper a longer flight time than once we imagined,” he writes.

And certainly, some elements of the industry will always live more comfortably on paper than screens.

But the worrisome part of Nourry’s conversation with Gill may not be in his colorful disdain for the basic ebook as “a stupid product” but in how some in the industry seem unsatisfied with a consumer desire that an ebook be, as he puts it, “exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic.”

What if that’s all the market ever wanted from an ebook?