The Bookseller Posts

Max Porter “Grief is the thing with Feathers”

‘If your wife is a ghost, then she is not wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, she is not mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood or the bitter pain of watching you boys live without her.’

‘No?’

‘No. Trust me, I know a bit about ghosts.’

‘Go on.’

‘She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress. Just as when you need to go to sleep you think of trees or lawns, you are taking instant symbolic refuge in a ready-made iconography of early safety and satisfaction. That exact place is where ghosts go.’

I look at Crow. Tonight he is Polyphemus and has only one eye, a polished patent eight-ball.

‘Go on then. Tell me.’

We sit in silence and I realise I am grinning. 

I recognise some of it. I believe him. I absolutely blissfully believe him and it feels very familiar. 

‘Thank you Crow.’

  ‘All part of the service.’

  ‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

  ‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, plase. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

  ‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

  ‘Lucky me.’

( p.68-70)

In 2015 a buzz began about a promising debut by Max Porter. He is an editor at Granta Books and was due to publish Grief is the Thing with Feathers a novel about an English widower and his two sons. It is a brilliant meditation on grief, loneliness,  death and Ted Hughes. It is a novel that is written from three perspectives — the dad, the sons and the crow. The latter is a psychic manifestation of the dad who also happens to be writing a book on the poet Ted Hughes called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis but the symbolism of the bird works at multiple levels too. For instance the crow is associated with grief, intelligence, personal transformation, believed to be a spirit animal, a creature presumed to have mystical and magical powers, is a steady presence in folklore, mythology and to have personal insight. The Crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers is no less. Surprisingly in this magical fable Max Porter with gentleness and supreme craftsmanship is able to weave in the mystical and modern with a personal tribute to a literary giant, Ted Hughes. It works splendidly not just in words but with a keen eye on the layout of text designed on each page seemingly in-step with the sentiment expressed. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2016 where the judges commended it for its “imaginative prose”. The prize is for the best work of English-language literary fiction – poetry, drama or prose – by a writer of 39 or under, marking Thomas’s own death shortly after his 39th birthday.

According to the Bookseller, Granta where Max Porter works promoted him to editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. Porter, who has published authors including Man Booker Prize-winning Eleanor Catton along with Han Kang, Tom Bullough, Caroline Lucas and Sarah Moss, will continue to acquire fiction and non-fiction for both lists. Sigrid Rausing, publisher of Granta, said: “I’m thrilled to announce Max Porter’s promotion. Max is a valued member of Granta’s editorial team – there is no part of publishing that he doesn’t do extremely well, and being a writer himself he understands the writing process from all angles.” Porter added: “I am delighted to be taking on this new role at Granta and Portobello. This is a remarkable team of people, dedicated to publishing outstanding books. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.” ( 31 May 2016 http://bit.ly/1su3hdE )

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an exquisitely complex novel that is a must have.

Max Porter Grief is the Thing with Feathers Faber & Faber , London, 2015. Hb. pp. 115 Rs 799

6 June 2016

On cellphones and publishing, for the future — “Hear this story”

On cellphones and publishing, for the future — “Hear this story”

My column, “PubSpeak” in BusinessWorld online, May 2013. The link is here: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/hear-this-story/881657.0/page/0

In September 2011 at the PubNext conference, I heard of a bouquet of books being offered in Tamil at a very reasonable price, but on a data card. This is strategic marketing since this highlights the potential for the phone and tablet market. It also coincides with the growth in 3G or mobile broadband connections in India.

Nearly a decade ago, a friend from the phone industry and I experimented with the conversion of a short story into an audio file. We hired a recording studio and voice actors for the dramatisation. After some trial and error we generated a short audio clip, designed to suit the needs of the telephone industry (landline as well as mobile). Listeners could pause the story at any point and resume listening at a later time, an especially convenient feature for women. The business model was good but the experiment was a little before its time. One issue in particular was the general scarcity of good content. Now the time is right. The technology has been available for a while and consumers are able to use these multiple platforms with increased sensitivity and understanding.

With the audio publishing industry growing at a fast pace and the equally rapid increase in the mobile phone broadband user base, there is a lot of potential for the dissemination of content via mobile platforms. And here “content” is defined specifically as the transference of text from the printed matter to the digital platform or conversion to audio files.


In their recently published book, Cellphone Nation, Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron discuss at length (albeit anecdotally) the impact mobile telephony has had on India since it was introduced in 1993. The statistics they rattle off about cellular phones are fascinating. In India there are more than 900 million telephone subscribers, of whom 600 million subscriptions are active, implying there is a phone for every two Indians, from infants to the aged. The authors go on to discuss the different aspects of Indian society, across genders and professions that mobile telephony has brought about changes, often for the better. Their insightful analysis of the effect texting has had on the evolution of languages and script is relevant to the publishing industry’s concerns with digital formats and the need to increase readership. Their evidence shows that rapidity with which languages and scripts are evolving today is the fastest seen since the Bible was translated. This phenomenon can be linked directly to the ease with which people have adopted text messages as a mode of communication. The adaptation to this medium was faster in those languages that used the Roman script. In order to access other language markets like those in India that operated in different non-Roman scripts, cellphone manufacturers and service providers quickly released the Panini Keypad. It enabled people to download software to write in all languages of India on the phone, fast and easily.

According to Shiv Putcha, Principal Analyst, Consumer Services, OVUM Telecom, the number of mobile connections in 2017 is projected to be about 1.35 billion, number of mobile broadband connections to be 351 million and the number of smartphones to be 163 million. These numbers indicate the potential of the technology to get across directly to readers. A small first step has been made in this direction by the announcement made by Harlequin UK in March 2013. They will be using the biNu app on phones (including feature phones) and tablets to deliver 8,700 titles from their stable, especially to the developing markets like Asia, Africa and South America. Tim Cooper, commercial director for Harlequin UK in the publishing industry business magazine, the Bookseller says “We’ve already established our Mills & Boon imprint in India, but it is our aim to make our content available to women across the world.”

biNu is a startup that was launched in early 2012 and is backed by Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s TomorrowVentures. The app’s interface is functional. It is not exciting or sophisticated but the potential to disseminate book-publishing content is easily discernible. According to Mark Shoebridge, VP Marketing, biNU, the app is available in English, Hindi and nearly 40 other languages, and supports over 200 fonts. Currently, news on biNu is available in Bengali, Kannada Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. The app is available through Google Play for Android. It is designed specifically to work on the standard phones (feature phones and low-end Androids) that are used by more than 90 per cent of Indians. This infrastructure is a short step away from making audio books on phones a reality. Jayashree, Co-founder and Director TALK audiobooks says that “audiobooks attract VAT which at 5.5 per cent is not very high. (Books do not attract any tax in India.) If the audiobooks were to be made available for downloads on the phone they will probably attract service tax which is 12.5 per cent. But content on mobile will be the future.”

It will probably take a little more time for this particular market segment in publishing to mature but the indications are there it will happen. Some of the hurdles that will need to be addressed will be getting the copyright permission for using the content, accurate reporting of the usage of content (text and audio) by the telephone and internet service providers, plus working out the ideal price points given that books, especially in the Indian languages are very reasonably priced.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

On content in publishing, March 2013

On content in publishing, March 2013

Last week my BusinessWorld column focussed on the importance of content. (http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/03/26/the-economics-of-electronic-content-if-the-e-content-falters-or-is-under-par-it-will-not-translate-into-a-sustainable-business-model/) It discussed how education publishers are growing. Trade publishers too want a slice of this pie and are busy reinventing themselves and introducing new verticals that focus on education publishing.

Since then there are three interesting pieces of news that I have come across:

16 March 2013 “..the global book conglomerate Random House is now hiring mostly statisticians and mathematicians in the United States, because CEO Markus Dohle has dubbed Random House a “data driven company”. ( “An Amazon problem: the book is dead, long live the book. ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Business/amazon-problem-book-dead-long-live-book/story?id=18737681#.UVMv2Bxgcsw )

26 March 2013 The Bookseller ( http://www.thebookseller.com/news/bertelsmann-develop-education-business.html) announced that Bertelsmann is to develop education business with the long-term potential to generate €1bn in sales, it was revealed at the company’s annual results conference in Berlin this morning (26th March).

Meanwhile Random House chairman and chief executive officer Markus Dohle spoke of “possible further portfolios” in Latin America following its outright acquisition of Spanish-language publisher Random House Mondadori.
Last year Bertelsmann invested in the University Ventures Fund, which partners with entrepreneurs and institutions to establish “transformative” companies in post-secondary education. Today the German media group said it was pursuing a “comparable model” in education.

Thomas Hesse, executive board member for corporate development and new businesses, said the education sector offered considerable growth potential in China, India and Brazil, and a new business division would be created for Bertelsmann’s education activities. The education division would grow through “incubation, start-ups and gradual development over the years”, he said.

The news came as Bertelsmann reiterated a company strategy oriented towards growth, and digital and international initiatives, with chairman and c.e.o. Thomas Rabe saying it was Bertelsmann’s objective to increase sales share in the US, China, India and Brazil.

At the conference, Dohle indicated that further publishing acquisitions could be on the cards as the company looked to growth in emerging markets. The acquisition of the remaining 50% of Random House Mondadori last November “makes it possible to generate more growth in Latin America, organically and with possible further portfolios”, he said.

AND

27 March 2013 HMH Appoints First-Ever Chief Content Officer (DBW) http://click.digitalbookworld-hub.com/?qs=eb4fce5f18a52c20103018f3ccfe67589e9bff1bcbf4bf04a4debf9366e867ce
Mary Cullinane is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s first-ever chief content officer. She was formerly the head of innovation for Microsoft Education. She will lead the company’s content production and innovation efforts. Previously, she had been executive vice president of corporate affairs at the company.