Today in books and publishing: Backlist sales are way down; Karl Ove Knausgaard reviewed in The New Yorker; writing on the subway; its hard to be commemorated in London; is the lit world really too nice?
E-books outsell print editions on Amazon UK. In another sign that publishing is entering an immaterial world, Amazon.co.uk reports that sales of e-books have outpaced sales of physical books, hardcover and paperback combined. For every 100 tangible books sold on the site, customers purchase 114 Kindle e-books, according to an unaudited report from Amazon UK. The online retailer interprets these figures as evidence of "a love of reading and a renaissance as a result of Kindle being launched." Fans of physical books aren't so enthused. Chip Kidd, one of today's great book cover designers, worries that e-books lose a sense of "tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness, [and] a little bit of humanity." NPR interviews Kidd, and presents a slideshow of covers he's designed. In any case, you certainly can't carve 3D skulls out of e-books. [The Guardian]
Speaking of e-books... The San Francisco Chronicle is launching a column written by Liz Colville that will only cover titles released exclusively as e-books. [Publishers Weekly]
James Wood reviews Min Kamp. "Are there serious contemporary writers who remind us of our mortality?" asks James Wood in The New Yorker. "The forty-three-year-old Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard is certainly one." Knausgaard's six-volume memoir-novel Min Kamp (which translates into English as My Struggle, or into German as, controversially, Mein Kampf) has achieved infamy in his native country. The first book was recently translated into English, and it's been getting very positive reviews. [The New Yorker]
A truly mobile office. When writing her novel Domestic Affairs, Bridget Siegel used the subway—that thing most of us take to the office—as her office. "I wrote the whole book on my BlackBerry on the New York City subways," says Siegel. "I would get up in the morning and go out to Coney Island and come back and go back." So, when riding the trains, try to be polite to those people furiously typing away at their phones. Get on their bad side, and they just might turn you into the villain of their next novel. [New York Post]
Responses to Is Lit World too nice: Jacob Silverman's essay "Against Enthusiasm," posted on Slate late last week, struck a chord within the literary community he accused of being too nice. A number of responses followed, some agreeing that a little negativity could make literary culture more dynamic, some thinking he shouldn't encourage meanness.
Washington Post Book editor and critic Ron Charles agrees that critics need to be given license to dislike books, but he notes that middling-to-bad reviews receive almost no attention. He writes, "You cannot fathom the silence that greets an unenthusiastic review of a mid-list literary novel. You could comfortably tune a piano in such silence."
Novelist Helen DeWitt, writing in the comments thread of a Millions post, thinks Silverman prizes negative reviews for the wrong reasons. "People who lament the demise of the hatchet job are not really worried that readers are being conned into buying bad books," she writes. "They feel that reviews are less entertaining than they used to be."
Even Emma Straub, who Silverman name-checks throughout his article, had an interesting take on this debate. While not necessarily disagreeting with Silverman, she defends the online lit world's enthusiasm. She writes, "I do try to be delightful, in part because I find complaining in public terribly gauche. The internet is my daily water cooler conversation, my would-be office banter. I wouldn’t use those places to talk shit about people, so I see no reason to use the internet to do so." [Washington Post; The Millions; Tumblr]
Why backlist sales matter. The decline in backlist sales might not seem like the toughest problem facing up-and-coming authors now, but its ripple effects may lead to lower advances and fewer opportunities. Nielsen BookScan data shows that fiction backlist titles sold 30% less this year than during the same time period in 2011. Nonfiction backlist sales dropped 13%. While this might not seem to have a direct effect on young writers, the collapse of the long tail will almost certainly leave publishers even more cash-strapped. Without this reliable mainstay income, they will most likely be unable to keep doling out generous advances. [Publishers Weekly]
No plaque for you. English Heritage has denied an application to commemorate early 20th century Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig with a blue plaque on the building he called his London home for five years. Apparently, it's not that easy for anyone to get a commemorative blue plaque in London—even Vladimir Nabokov can't get one. [The New York Times]
Paulo Coelho hates Ulysses. The Brazilian author sure knows how to ruffle feathers. First he encourages book piracy. Now he says James Joyce's modernist classic is "a twit." In an interview with a Brazilian newspaper, he says, "One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce's Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there." [The Guardian]