Notes Of A Book Lover

Well, dear readers (possibly lovers of literature?), I recently visited the book fair in Frankfurt for my work and afterwards, in a smooth follow-on, I myself was an exhibitor at the book fair in Belgrade (the largest book fair in the Balkans). I am an enthusiastic but also very critical reader and, therefore, it is no surprise that I am there, where books are at home. But I think I have to first introduce myself more precisely, in order to make the perspectives of the following considerations clearer:

I am …

… a publisher (for fifteen years now I have been running a small publishing house in Belgrade ‑ by the way a very reading-friendly city). And therefore it is clearly my job to think about all of the things which make a publishing house function (book choice, production, sales, etc.). Furthermore, I am also a translator. I have translated many books from German into Serbian language and often work with other translators. Therefore, I also think about how the product, which the reader of the translated work is presented with, should actually be.

And finally, I work at the largest Serbian publishing house as a copy editor for German literature. My task is to find German books, to examine them and then suggest their publication. Therefore I often have to deal with the department for rights and licenses. In this respect, it is also somehow obvious that I have no option but to think about the book as a medium and the entire industry.

What happens at such a book fair? What can it actually offer, and above all: Who does it offer something to? One could think that the answer is obvious.

The first impression upon entering such a book temple is the following: WOW! One is simply overwhelmed, a true ocean of books, sentences, words, letters. Yes, here the heart of every bookworm suddenly beats a lot faster. And still one cannot avoid asking the simple question which is always posed: Who actually reads all of the books on offer? And are there even so many readers to satisfy this offer? And..?

At a book fair like this (and the one in Frankfurt is the largest worldwide) literature lovers, publishers, booksellers, librarians and of course authors, among others, get together. It is a cultural event and everything revolves around celebrating literature in general.

Above all it is also a huge business. The latest titles of all genres are presented, the book dealers haggle over exhibition space, international rights and licences are sold, and much more is negotiated.

In order for everything to function smoothly (but also to satisfy the needs of the book, the reader and the author), many panel discussions are held, interviews are given, events are organised, radio and television are present and, what is very important, the simple reader can often meet his favourite author in the flesh.

The goal of a book fair

But if we are very, very honest, we have to admit that the actual goal of all of this effort is the production of the bestseller … if everything goes well, a global money spinner …

Soon we will deal with various phenomena concerning the book, for example, how a book develops, how one produces a national and international bestseller, how it occurs that a book is translated into forty languages and it is neither a modern classic nor written by Goethe, Dostojewski or Jack London. What targeted conceptual literature is nowadays should be discussed, and we will examine the relationship between, on the one hand, the author and the publisher, and, on the other hand, the relationship between the publisher and the book seller. We also want to take a look at the difference between local and translated literature and explore the differences and similarities between different markets.

Of course we will also pursue philosophical questions; for example, is it possible that we cannot argue about taste? Or, in other words: does trash exist in literature, and who reads it? Or, put differently: are there objectively good books, and if so, which criteria do they have to fulfil? Will eBooks and audiobooks replace the physical book, just as the CD replaced records? And does literary criticism still even exist? We will address the question of when a contemporary work can be called a modern classic, and if this even exists.

Internal statistics from publishing houses show that women read much more than men. Why is this the case? To what extent does the significance of a book change with the passing of time or is it the reader who has changed?

It is truly interesting that …

But one thing I would like to tell you, dear readers: we are on a very exciting journey into the world of books but the truly interesting aspect is that we will take a look behind the scenes of the book cover in order to better understand what we really mean when we talk about books today. We will also talk to authors and other interesting people from the world of books (also in the medium of radio) and present great (not only the latest) books.

It is our aim to arouse the interest in reading by every possible means and via various channels. The current normal character of informative reading (the reading of short topical articles in the Internet) should be supplemented by the educational, namely by understanding ideas, contexts and content which go beyond the newspaper and Internet format. Or, expressed in another way:

Books can be very helpful when we want to delve deeper into a chosen subject so that we can add this as like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle to the picture of life in a meaningful manner. In this way, it can connect with our experience and, at the right moment, mutate to inner knowledge, perhaps even to wisdom. That is precisely the primary focus.

However, there is one topic that has increasingly preoccupied me over the years: the short-lived quality of a book.

The short-lived quality of a book

You attend a book fair and there you can admire the book from the summer/autumn quarters of the respective year and perhaps a few highlights from the previous quarters. All of that which we previously said about the impression of being overwhelmed thus refers to this half-yearly production. In other words, an incredible number of books are published. In order to fully appreciate this, it is good if we have concrete figures:

In 2015 89,506 books were published in the German-speaking book market (245 titles per day). Of these, 76,547 were first editions and 12,959 new editions (in 1985 the respective figures were 57,623, 45,000 and 12,623). It is great that so many books are published; it reflects a great thirst for knowledge and need for culture, one could say. Demand dictates the market, one could argue. This could be true – in theory….

Let us take a look at the average life of a book in a time lapse. It is born, for example in autumn. Everyone is happy about the new life! Above all, the author, whose “pregnancy” often lasted years. But also the publisher, the book seller, the press and the reader, as well as everyone who is somehow connected to it. The book arrives on the shelf of the bookshop as a finished product (on the condition that it fulfils the criteria to be ordered and exhibited) or it can be purchased via the Internet or from the publisher.

At the same time, the book is advertised and, if everything goes well, we can read about the work in relevant newspapers (and we can be happy about this although it cannot be compared to before, when the book critic was not short-lived hidden advertising). And then there are two possibilities: either the book becomes a bestseller or not. If it does, then it may live for a few quarters more and, if it does not, it will be forgotten about within a few months.

This short-lived quality is, however, difficult to reconcile with the slow-nature of the book as a medium. A book simply needs time, there is no other choice. You have to sit down and spend a certain number of hours with the book, which depends on the complexity of the work. There is no way around this. Provided that you want to read the whole book. From a publisher’s perspective, a 300-page book corresponds to a 100-minute blockbuster in the cinema. As such, this is the optimal length from the cost-benefit-profit perspective of a publisher. But many books are much longer: 500, 700 or 1,000 pages are by no means a rare occurrence.

Dear reader, do you have an idea about the point I would like to make? How many books can a bookworm really read in one month, one year? Two, three? Five if he does not have anything else to do? How much time does the average working person have to read? For whom is this vast market?

Many similar thoughts run around in my head when I walk through the fairs, triggered by the fact that none of the books from the previous year, the highlights of the season, the highly-praised modern classics and the world-changing works of non-fiction are even mentioned at all. What about those which were published three, four, five years ago? How do the authors feel when they have worked on a book for years when its fate is similar to that of a mayfly (perhpas better, that of a butterfly)?

The well-discussed and promising books and authors are simply chewed up and spat out by the laws of the market which have been transferred from other consumer goods onto books in an ill-considered and careless fashion. Are we dealing with a socio-cultural anachronism? And when the value of the book on the market has changed, does this automatically mean that the great significance of the book has changed?

Nevertheless this year there were also promising goodies: in this sea, one can indeed find pearls but you have to dive and look for them.

I will defer to the rhythm of the book and will not bombard you with tips and recommendations. Let us start gently. In keeping with today’s topics I would like to tell you about a book which moved me to reflect and which contains much exciting material for all book friends to think about. It is Tim Park‘s book, Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books. It was published in August 2016 at the Antje Kunstmann publishing house.

Thank you for your attention and – we will read from each other!

Translation into English: Donna Stockenhuber

Cover-Picture: Nebojša Barać CC BY-SA 4.0

Credits

Image Title Author License
2016-11-11-19-32-34 Nebojsa Barac CC BY-SA 4.0