Kent State Stark Library Book Club
Wednesday, October 28th, 20151
Time: 5:15 p.m.
Meeting will be held in the Library.
Nina George reports on her journey to international literary fame.
How do you say “Lavendelzimmer” in Latvian? What is a double taxation treaty? Which sex scenes did the U.S. publisher ask to be revised? Nina George’s bestseller, Das Lavendelzimmer (The Little Paris Bookshop), has been translated into 26 languages. In her essay for Federwelt, the author discusses the joys and setbacks she has encountered in her literary career as well as the peculiarities of the international book market.
November 18, 2013, 8 p.m.: “Are you sitting down?” my agent asks.
“No, but I’m lying down. On the carpet with Daniel Kehlmann.”
“Good. Put the Kehlmann aside for the moment. Crown has requested a pre-empt. New York is giving us an ultimatum until five o’clock. Do you want to know how much they’re offering?”
“Nah,” I lie. There is no way this can be happening. I picture my agent sitting on her moving boxes, eating pizza and drinking red wine. You never get calls like this in real life. It’s past five o’clock, in any case. I must have fallen asleep over the Kehlmann book and I’m having a disjointed dream. After all, my life has been nothing but chaos for the past six months. I wrote a novel that surprisingly outsold the publisher’s projections by a whopping 849 percent. I don’t know what I did right. I’ve been on all the bestseller lists for months, and yet it still feels strange to see my name there. The critic Denis Scheck called my novel “dumb” and “frivolous,” while thousands of readers wrote letters telling me how much Das Lavendelzimmer consoled them in their grief over the death of a loved one. Despite everything, my father—my confidant, my inner strength—is still dead. He doesn’t know that his offbeat daughter, who feverishly wrote a story about books and grief in ten short weeks, will soon see her work read in Italian, Finnish and Chinese. And in 23 other languages, enough to console the whole world. And yet, my bedroom ceiling leaks, and I’m asleep on the carpet, unaware of what is going on.
An obscene offer
My agent pauses for dramatic effect before shouting Crown’s offer in my ear—a six-figure number in dollars. It’s only four p.m. in New York. I have one hour to decide. Then we both scream into the phone and dance a wild jig, my agent in her pajamas.
With its pre-empt, Crown secured the U.S. translation rights to Das Lavendelzimmer, thus avoiding an auction and the need to compete against other potential buyers.
I now share a publisher with Michelle Obama and Gillian Flynn. I can’t begin to imagine what has happened to me.
The Italians acre difficult, the Americans jealous
A miracle is what has happened. Or perhaps a logical progression, because once the ball gets rolling, this is how it goes: The German book market is the third largest in the world, after the United States and China. When a German novel lands among the top five hardcover titles on the SPIEGEL bestseller list, the scouts perk up and take a closer look. Italy is considered a difficult market, but when the Italian publisher, Sperling & Kupfer, buys a German title, the U.K. also pays attention—the Italians are known to have a keen eye for good material. When England acquires a book, the Americans get all territorial. An English-language edition means access to the world market, Hollywood and aggravation. New York prefers to keep the world market, Hollywood and aggravation to itself: Random House and its Broadway imprint, for instance. Once Broadway gets on board, Taiwan and China become restive. Meanwhile, Russia…
My head hurts as I listen to my agent explain what it really means for an author to be translated into 26 languages. It means fame, merciless Goodreads reviews and a new photo for the dust jackets. It also means filling out exemption forms for double taxation treaties—in Korean, Finnish and Italian. My tax advisors feel the stress, both globally and locally. For each contract, I must wait an average of two years to get my money. I will receive huge e-book percentages in markets where digital piracy has destroyed the e-book market (the Netherlands and Spain). While bibliophile cultures pay enormous percentages, the readership in these countries is so small, I could stand every fan a round of drinks from the royalties I’ve earned there (Latvia, Bulgaria). Then there are markets like the United States, where people toss around six-figure numbers (of any kind) as easily as we German engage in lamentation.
At the time this article is published, I will be giving a reading in Riga. In English, with the Latvian translation projected onto a movie screen. Kind of insane, I think.
Cover and title design: voluptuous blondes and old-world Europe
The novel’s title and cover are getting a complete makeover in all countries. The Italian image has a voluptuous blonde strolling along a shady lane. The United States and the U.K. chose The Little Paris Bookshop as the title (“old-world Europe rocks!”) and placed the Eiffel Tower in a dramatic panorama. The Dutch cover shows a riverboat bookshop sailing down the Seine. The French associate “lavender” (Lavendel in the book’s German title) with laundry detergent rather than Provence and rewrote the title entirely: The Forgotten Letter. Because Poland has active reader communities, the Polish publisher replaced the customary blurb and its few lines of praise with reader reviews on the back of the book and inside the cover. Ever since the first six translations were published, I’ve been answering messages on Facebook from Poland, Italy and Spain, from California and Tunisia. The whole world is reading my work.
And I’m reading the whole world.
Have I mentioned that all this attention is not making it any easier or more pleasant to write the next book? Success has invited writer’s block in a way that failure never did. In the past, I “only” had to worry about language, voice and plot. Now I agonize over “substance.” Will my next book be “substantive” enough to embrace the whole world?
It took me a year to banish my fears, and now I’ve come up with material that is powerful enough. However, I still need to grow into it.
The captains of literature: female, tough as nails and sincere
Let me end with a couple of observations I find particularly pertinent to the steampunk submarine known as the “international book market.” The captains and navigators in publishing are women! From agents to list managers, women negotiate with other women on everything from money and content to sales. The translators, on the other hand, are male. Men virtually rewrite the book. They seek linguistic images that will resonate in Israel, Norway or Russia. They look for a comprehensible equivalent for “Wünschlichkeit“ (“wishableness”), one of the new words than Max invents for Samy in Das Lavendelzimmer. The Americans get all finicky when it comes to the graphic nature of my erotic scenes. They prefer to leave a lot of it up to the imagination: more Barbie doll sexlessness, less Anais Nin eroticism. It’s because of the linguistic censorship that Apple imposes on e-books. Too much explicit sex means the book won’t be sold through iBooks. At least not without ******.
However, the author has the final say. Always. And I want to keep the ******.
The agents and publishers always sign their first names to their e-mails: Vanessa, Cecile, Mirjam. From New York to Paris, they write: “Best regards/Yours, Christine, Rowan, Anna, Hedda, Elise.” They discuss money with the cold clarity of a glass of vodka. No dancing around the issue as is so often the case in Germany. What’s even more cathartic, though, is the praise I’ve received from Cecile, Rowan, Anna, Hedda and Christine.
No praise for my work has ever been as profuse and sincere as the compliments I’ve received from these foreign publishers in Paris, New York, Rome, Amsterdam and Riga. First they bought my book, then they wrote me long letters explaining what they liked about it.
I suspect the reluctance to compliment authors and their novels is a typically German phenomenon. What if it makes the author too expensive? Or if the accolades go to her head? Or if she becomes…somehow…too difficult to work with? Nonsense! Bring on the praise, my dear German book people! It is pure joy. And just between you and me, it will not necessarily make us more expensive. It will make us better.
But that is a story for another day.
About the Author
NINA GEORGE , author and activist for author’s rights
Born 1973 in Bielefeld, Germany, Nina George is a prize-winning and bestselling author (“Das Lavendelzimmer” – “The Little Paris Bookshop”) and freelance journalist since 1992, who has published 26 books (novels, mysteries and non-fiction) as well as over hundred short stories and more than 600 columns. George has worked as a cop reporter, columnist and managing editor for a wide range of publications, including Hamburger Abendblatt, Die Welt, Der Hamburger, “politik und kultur” as well as TV Movie and Federwelt. Georges writes also under three pen-names, for ex “Jean Bagnol”, a double-andronym for provence-based mystery novels.
In 2012 and 2013 she won the DeLiA and the Glauser-Prize. In 2013 she had her first bestselling book “Das Lavendelzimmer”, translated into 30 languages and sold more than 800.000 copies.
In November 2011, Nina George established the “JA zum Urheberrecht” (YES on Author’s Rights) initiative, which supports the rights of authors, artists and entertainers and is dedicated to resolving issues within the literary community as well as establishing fair and practical rights-license models for the web-distribution. 14 writers’ associations and 27 publishing partners have since joined the JA…-Initiative. George supports the “Initiative Urheberrecht” (Author’s Rights Initiative—www.urheber.info) as well as the “gib 8 aufs Wort”-campaign of the VG Wort.
In August 2014 George initiated the Amazon-protest in Germany www.fairer-buchmarkt.de, where overs 2000 germanspeaking authors – Nobelprizewinnig Elfriede Jelinek or Bestsellingauthor Nele Neuhaus – sign an open letter to Jeff Bezos and Amazon, protesting against the banned-book-methods of the giant retailer in the Hachette/Bonnier-dispute.
In 2015 George is the founder of the Initiative Fairer Buchmarkt e.V., which supports questions of law in daily business of authors – for ex in contracts, fees or author’s rights and e-Business. www.fairerbuchmarkt.de
George is Member to PEN, Das Syndikat (association of German-language crime writers), the Association of German Authors (VS), the Hamburg Authors’ Association (HAV), BücherFrauen (Women in Publishing), the IACW/AIEP (International Association of Crime Writers), the GEDOK (Association of female artists in Germany), PRO QUOTE and Lean In.
Nina George sits on the board of the Three Seas Writers’ and Translaters’ Council (TSWTC), whose members come from 16 different countries. In May 2015 she was elected to the board of German PEN, and is now official adviser for the topic author’s rights.
George is also on the administrative board of Collecting Society VG Wort.
Nina George teaches writing and coaches young people, adults and professional authors, and also moderates (bilingual) readings (German-English), and works as a speaker on author’s rights and transfer of value in the digital world.
(From Nina George's website)