Paul Auster Posts

Vera Michalski-Hoffman’s keynote address at Jaipur Bookmark, 25 Jan 2019

The Jaipur Bookmark is a business conclave held during the Jaipur Literature Festival. In fact it begins a day before the litfest is inuagurated. It is a fantastic space for publishing professionals to congregate from around the world and discuss new trends and share ideas and experiences. On the third day of the conclave, Friday 25 Jan 2019, I moderated a session on “Indies vs Giants”. The scope of the discussion was: “Independent publishers with lower overheads are finding their niche position in the publishing industry around the world, even as publishing giants are consolidating their positions. This session talks about creative risk taking and the tools brave, new publishers adopt.” The panellists were publishers Vera Michalski-Hoffman (Libella group), Karthika VK ( Westland/Amazon), Jeremy Trevathan (Macmillan), and Anna Solding (Midnight Sun Publishing). Vera Michalski-Hoffman also delivered the keynote address and with her kind permission it is reproduced here.

*******

L-R: Anna Solding, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Vera Michalski-Hoffman, Jeremy Trevathan, Karthika VK

Born in Basel, Switzerland, in a family with Swiss, Russian and Austrian roots, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann spent her childhood in France, studied in Spain and has a degree in Political Science from the Graduate institute of International Studies in Geneva. She established a foundation named after her late husband, The Jan Michalski Foundation for Literature and Writing to actively support literary activities in different countries. She is now the publisher of the Libella group that comprises the following imprints: In France: Buchet/Chastel, Phébus, Le temps apprivoisé, les Cahiers dessinés, Libretto. In Switzerland: Noir sur Blanc, with a new line called Notabilia, Editions Favre. And in Poland: Oficyna Literacka Noir sur Blanc. She also acquired The Polish Bookshop in Paris. 

Vera Michalski’s tremendous work in supporting literature with the establishment of Libella group and it’s acquisitions of fine independent publishing firms have ultimately benefitted the fine stable of authors as is noticeable with World Editions and it’s recent expansion plans.  “The group is unique in its total financial independence and the diversity of its editorial production: French and foreign literature, travel stories, essays, documents, music, ecology, illustrated books and creative hobbies. Priority is given to quality, especially to the quality of writing.” 

*********

I thought that I would focus my speech on the specificities of Libella, being neither a giant nor obviously an Indie so that this case study of an untypical small publishing house evolving into a publishing group publishing in 3 different languages could form a sort of starting point for our discussion.

Let me tell you the story of how this independent group came into existence by a succession of launching new imprints and acquiring existing ones and what fields it covers now, naturally mentioning the Indian or Jaipur connection when appropriate. Forgive me for not respecting a strict chronology for it is a complicated story unfolding in different territories.

The whole story started in 1987 in Switzerland when my husband and I opened les éditions Noir sur Blanc, a niche publisher aiming at bringing mostly Polish and Russian authors to the  French-speaking market (France, Belgium, Quebec, Switzerland) and covering both fiction and non-fiction. This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall so not that obvious. Later we covered other fields, like narrative history and published quite a few Jaipur regulars such as William Dalrymple, Giles Milton, or Anthony Sattin. We now bring out as well illustrated books mainly about drawing and photography. A total of over 400 titles.

We soon decided that it was important to publish in Polish as well and opened a Polish branch in 1989 where we started by introducing famous international authors into Poland that were then still unpublished. Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Paul Auster, to name just a few. We published Umberto Eco’s novels and brought out detective stories with a travel angle. The likes of Donna Leon, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and Andrea Camilleri were unknown then. We have published so far well over 500 books in Polish.

Still in Poland but later, in 2002, Wydawnictwo Literackie, one of the  most literary publishing houses founded in 1953  under communist rule and still state owned, came up for sale in the frame of privatization. We stepped in. That magnificent company’s list and backlist never cease to amaze me. Let’s mention just a few names: Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Claudio Magris, Alice Munro, and Orhan Pamuk. Not to mention the best of Polish literature with names such as Olga Tokarczuk, recent winner of the Man booker International,Witold Gombrowicz, or Szcepan Twardoch.

In the year 2000, in Paris, we had acquired Buchet/Chastel, a literary publisher established in 1929, a well-regarded publisher of fiction. This allowed us to touch French literature which we were very keen to do, alongside some significant international authors. Buchet had been the publisher of Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, or Henry Miller to mention just a few names. However, in 2000, Buchet /Chastel was well past its glory. People called it “La belle endormie” in reference to the famous tale Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, but remembered the iconic bright orange covers.

It made for a real challenge to bring it back to the forefront of literary life. We hired editors for the different lines we wanted to exist: French literature, world literature, non-fiction. We then took a good look at the impressive backlist and decided what directions we wanted to keep. The founder of Buchet /Chastel, Edmond Buchet was a keen musician and a rather good pianist. He had made friends with a number of famous musicians among them Yehudi Menuhin. He published quite a few books about music. We decided to maintain that line. We opened new fields and started an environmental series. France was then not very receptive to these topics, the field being covered mostly by very politicized books on the verge of pamphlets, on marginal topics. Nobody was focusing on important issues and providing objective material, food for thought so to speak, which we aimed at doing. We decided as well to keep the famous orange covers that people remembered modernizing them by using a different cover paper and different typo. Because we all know that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water! Sometimes there needs to be a sort of continuity. Over the years, we published quite a few Indian writers, in fiction and non-fiction, among them our biggest success was Tarun Tejpal, (The Alchemy of Desire). Our list boasts as well with Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger), Suketu Mehta, Rana Dasgupta, Gurcharan Das, Pankaj Mishra etc.

Shortly before 2000, we had acquired les éditions Phébus, a house founded in 1978, with an excellent reputation especially in foreign literature and stories of great explorers, or rediscovered classics, as Alexandre Dumas’s Le Chevalier de Saint Hermine. Phébus had created a paperback imprint a few years before under the name Libretto, now a very important part of the Libella group.

In 2003 we opened a brand new field, drawing, and started publishing big format soft cover beige albums typeset in a classical elegant way and printed on quality paper under the name Les Cahiers dessinés. The aim was to bring back drawing to its rightful place as one of the important disciplines of art alongside painting or sculpture. We now have more than 100 titles in our backlist and some books sold quite well, like Alberto Giacometti’s Paris Without End.

Photography is represented in the Libella group by 2 imprints: Photosynthèses which was started from scratch in 2013 in Arles, in the south of France, (the first book published in 2014 was Lou Reed’s Rhymes). Every book is considered unique and different formats co-exist in the list. They are printed with the utmost care. Libella acquired editions Robert Delpire, founded in 1951, when the founder chose to retire a few years ago. We are gradually opening the list to new authors while remaining careful not to alter the excellent image the house has enjoyed in the past with famous authors such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, or Robert Franck. Under these new circumstances, we reacted quickly when the gallery adjoining the Delpire office became available. We relabeled it FOLIA, a name that seemed to reconcile book and image, and produce now 5 exhibitions a year showing both our authors’ work and others whose work fits into the concept. The aim is to show photography with a literary angle.

Another line in Libella needs to be mentioned, practical books under the imprint Le Temps apprivoisé, a part of Buchet Chastel  when we acquired it. We decided to keep it in spite of a relative distance to the main part of the catalogue and a sector fragilized by the competition with internet sites and cheap books produced by the giants able to have huge print runs.

One recent development is very important to me. In 2016, World Editions joined Libella and we now publish in English a small list of 8 books a year under the motto Voices from around the globe. The office is in Amsterdam. The idea is to help interesting books, often from peripheral languages, to get access to translations and the world market in an age where translations, expensive as they are, tend to stick to mainstream authors and main languages leaving some authors alone.

In between, in 1991, we had intervened in order to prevent the closing of the Polish Bookstore established in Paris since 1833.This very well located shop, then selling mostly books in Polish or translated from Polish. It is now a very active general bookstore. It welcomes any kind of literary event in a part of Paris where books have sadly given way to clothes in spite of the fact that it was home to most publishers until recent years saw a consolidation of the industry bringing about the need for bigger office space that the old district of St. Germain des Prés could not offer. This happened recently as a result of the consolidation in the publishing industry, most small literary publishers had to leave the area to move in with their respective groups often located outside the historical centre of town. The bookstore and the gallery became an important part of our publicity and ensure an improved visibility in Paris.

I believe I gave you the general picture of Libella, a confederation of small almost niche mostly literary publishers, publishing in 3 languages out of offices in Lausanne, Paris, Arles, Warsaw, Krakow, Amsterdam and New York.

In spite of our relatively small size, we have a certain complexity, publish over 300 books a year. So where do we stand? Let our discussion clarify that point.

12 Feb 2019

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014 

Granta 125 and 126

Granta 125 and 126

Granta, After the WarGranta 125: After the War and Granta 126: Do you Remember are two issues that you read, put away, mull over, revisit, make parts of it your own and then it becomes a part of you. After the War ( http://www.granta.com/Archive/125 ) has contributions by Romesh Gunesekera, Justin Jin,  Herta Muller, Aminatta Forna, Hari Kunzru, Paul Auster and Patrick French. Every essay is an account of a conflict area that is familiar to the writer. It could be Sri Lanka for Romesh Gunesekera or being in Iran at the time of the American hostage crisis for Aminatta Forna or being a Jew in America for Paul Auster or as Patrick French does in his part-reportage, part-memoir, grapple with the expectations of and coming to terms with having a war hero for an uncle. Every single essay or short story in the magazine is distinct in its style, in what it documents and what the writer chooses to dwell upon, at times even complimented by the sentence structures. Paul Auster’s essay, “You Remember the Planes”, forces you to read it, grapple with it since the paragraphs are sometimes over a page or two in length. You cannot pause to reflect but have to read on and on.

Earlier this year, I met Romesh Gunesekera at the Jaipur Literature Festival. We were chatting about his new book, Noontide Toll, when the conversation veered towards war and craft of writing. Later in an email he wrote “I would say that one has to attend to the craft. If the sentences don’t work, then whatever is being written will not last long enough to matter.”  ( This was in response to an interview I did for the Hindu Literary Supplement. It is as yet to be published.)

Aminatta Forna essay, “1979”, is about the events in Iran, the American diplomats who were taken hostage. Aminatta Forna was fourteen years old and had moved to Teheran with her family, since her stepfather had been posted to the city by the United Nations. She witnesses and recounts her experience of being in Iran in the 1970s. She refers to the “curfew parties”, which under ordinary circumstances would be considered “bizarre”, but when read in context of the events, seem like perfectly natural and ornate spaces created for socialising and sharing of experiences, shutting out the dark reality. In fact, Aminatta Forna offers a course in Witness Literature where fiction is used to express and document events. Here is a short film made by a student of hers discussing it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PELSk5JkaZI These events of 1979 were recently documented in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film Argo. I am unable to locate the link for now, but Aminatta Forna’s mother wrote a very powerful article in a UK-based newspaper presenting her side of the story and how much of Ben Affleck’s film was pure fiction.

Patrick French’s title essay “After the War” is about his great-uncle Maurice Dease who fought in the Battle of Mons and was the first recipient of the Victoria Cross. I suspect an essay like this, expanded into a book form will work brilliantly—part anecdotal, part personal, part historical and with a strong perspective. Narrative non-fiction at its best, connecting to the past, yet firmly fixed in the present.

Granta, Do you remember 126Of all the essays in Do you Remember  ( http://www.granta.com/Archive/126 ) two have remained with me — David Gates, ” A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me” and Johnny Steinberg’s “The Defeated”. David Gates’s essay is about his friendship with Paul Thompson, a singer, who when he is dying, opts to stay on Gates’s farm. It is a moving account of reading about Gates admiring the Thompson from afar, to becoming a good friend and then a tender caregiver. Johnny Steinberg’s essay is a little more complicated. It may seem like reportage about the events KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa and the clashes between the farmers and tenants. But there are layers and layers to the stories he recounts — his own experience of collecting the facts, the stories the tenants recount and the farmers. Of many generations before and of the rapid change taking place since Apartheid was abolished in early 1990s. It leaves you wondering about the various ways in which one event can be remembered.

Both the books are worth reading.

1 May 2014 

 

“Junior Premier League”, Joy Bhattacharjya

“Junior Premier League”, Joy Bhattacharjya

Junior Premier LeagueA slim novel for ten-year-olds. Written by Joy Bhattacharjya and his twelve-year-old son, Vivek. The story is about Sachin, Neel and a bunch of boys who are competing to join the Delhi team of the Junior Premier League. The story is from the time they are selected, trained and compete in the championship. I enjoyed reading the book. It is very clear from the story, irrespective of the format of the game being played, cricket is like any other sport — it is gruelling in the training and discipline that is required.

While reading the story, I kept getting the feeling that the story was reading well, since there were details about organising a cricket tournament, preparing the players for it — in terms of practice, nourishment, mental strength etc. Details about time management, slowly changing the players from thinking only about themselves to behaving like a team player, while retaining their individual traits and strengths.  In an email conversation with Joy Bhattacharjya, he said that the series arc will develop slowly. For now he  is trying to establish and build the JPL universe and follow Sachin, Neel and a couple of the other characters as  the league goes into another year. The frequency of the books will be twice a year, with the next one due to be published in November and Book 3 to coincide with the next IPL.

My only quibble with the story is that the brutal competitiveness that children and young adults are capable of is lacking in this story. The focus is on cricket but the characters are comparatively tame. Contemporary young adult literature can be at times horrifyingly honest and sharp in the violence and harsh world it depicts. Young adults are still on the cusp of adulthood, so have not completely lost that clarity of behaviour that exists in childhood, of being who they are, seeing the world in black and white. Even though Joy Bhattacharjya had taken the help of his son to get into the mind of a twelve-year-old and they have worked on the plot together, I felt that they fell a little short. Maybe once Joy and his son settle into the skin of the characters, they will be able to express themselves more confidently.

Writing about sports and literature is never easy. IPL or the Junior Premier League which is the focus of the novel is a new Here and Now, 2008- 2011version of an old sport. Tailor-made for the speed age, part-entertainment, part-sports, but a business that involves huge amounts of money. So creating a story that is trying to yoke together the IPL version of cricket and create a good story for young readers is a tough balancing act. There is a lovely portion in the correspondence between Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee published in Here and Now: Letters ( 2008 – 2011) about sports. Coetzee says in his letter of 11 May 2009, “What strikes me is how difficult it is to invent and launch a thoroughly new sport ( not just a variant of an old one), or perhaps I should say launch a new game ( sports being selected out of the repertoire of games).” To which Paul Auster replies, “…essentially you are right. Nothing new has been made to impact for generations. When you think about how quickly various technologies have altered daily life ( trains, cars, airplanes, movies, radios, televisions, computers), the intractability of sports is at first glance mystifying. There has to be a reason for it…So much is at stake now in professional sports, so much money is involved , there is so much profit to be gained by fielding a successful team that the men who control soccer, basketball, and all other major sports are as powerful as the heads of the largest corporations, the heads of governments. There is simply no room to introduce a new game. The market is saturated, and the games that already exist have become monopolies that will do everything possible to crush any upstart competitor. That doesn’t mean that people don’t invent new games ( children do it every day), but children don’t have the wherewithal to launch multi-million-dollar commercial enterprises.” ( p.65, p.68-69)

For Joy Bhattacharjya, who is associated with Kolkota Knight Riders, it is such an integral part of his professional life, he is able to infuse the story with details about the team, give the children like Sachin and Neel  dreams to be like their heroes, all of which ring true and important for accurate  storytelling but it needs to soar higher than the particulars of the game. While providing insightful tidbits about the game and championship, the story at the same time has to be in step with good children’s literature that will continue to be read and sell beyond the current IPL season; well after heroes like Sunil Narine have quit professional cricket. For now much of reading pleasure stems from the familiarity with the media buzz about the game.

There is promise in the first book. Hence the expectations. I have no doubt the series will live up to these expectations.

Joy Bhattacharjya The First XI Junior Premier League Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 176. Rs. 199.