Tagholm's Take - the news in books at 21 December 2018

Roger Tagholm
News - Books Friday, 21 December 2018

Roger Tagholm on the Peter Mayer memorial, the Brazilian book crisis, and other news from the book world


The UK publishing industry gathered earlier this month to honour one of the true greats of the industry with a celebration of the life of former Penguin chief Peter Mayer at Christ Church in Spitalfields, in east London.

Profile MD Andrew Franklin described Mayer as "the visionary who, more than any other, transformed English language publishing. He took a moribund, money-losing institution and turned it into the world's most admired and successful publishing company. Penguin - the Penguin Group as he made it - became both hugely profitable and a global cultural force for good, with local publishing offices around the world."

Former Viking and Puffin publisher Tony Lacey recalled how funny and "unfusty" Mayer could be, as he discovered when he told Mayer they were about to lose the rights to one of Puffin's most successful books. "I said that I'd tried everything: wined and dined the lady author, wined and dined her agent, wined and dined the hardcover publisher, made big financial offers, drawn up elaborate new publishing strategies. All to no avail. I was dreading his response to this grim news. ‘Well', he said, ‘you know what you have to try now.' When it finally dawned on me what he was suggesting, I drew on my deep reserves of English Puritanism and said, ‘But Peter, I'm married!'…"#

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What better way for the year to end than with a love letter to books and bookshops? The reasons for the blog post by Luiz Schwarcz, ceo of Companhia das Letras in Brazil, may be worrying - it charts the fall in book sales that has seen the country's two leading chains file for bankruptcy - but the sentiments expressed and the way the post went viral were heartening.

In the letter, Schwarcz asks everyone - "publishers, booksellers and authors - to join together in the search for creative and idealistic solutions" to the problems besetting the Brazilian book industry. He urges people to learn from campaigns in the country's recent election, and to heed "the solidarity networks that formed". He wants people to use "letters, WhatsApp messages, emails, social media posts and videos, produced with sincerity and an open heart, [to rally] around fellow bookworld stakeholders, especially its more fragile players".

Schwarcz wants people to give books as gifts this Christmas, and writes: "Buy them at those bookstores that are heroically riding this crisis out, honoring their commitments, but also at those that have fallen on hard times, and who need our help to muddle through."

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Markus Dohle, ceo of Penguin Random House (which owns Companhia), released his own end-of-year letter too. He praised PRH employees globally for "your unwavering commitment and dedication to our publishing; our collective, abiding belief in the power of words, stories and ideas; and our responsibility as corporate citizens that resulted in continued success for Penguin Random House".

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But it wasn't a PRH title that took the first non-fiction author into Forbes' Highest-Paid Authors list for the first time in more than 10 years. That honour fell to Michael Wolff, whose Fire and Fury (Little, Brown) helped earn the author $13m, according to the magazine. But with more than 5m copies of Michelle Obama's Becoming in print, published by PRH, Obama could well become the first former First Lady to make the list.

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There were some fascinating insights into the Chinese children's market from Zhang Mingzhou, president of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). While noting that the Chinese children's market grew by 14.2% from January to September this year and now accounts for approximately 25% of China's total retail book market, he adds that "most rural villages have no access to books, bookstores, or even libraries", and that "how to get books to these areas - and address the inequality in access to, and distribution of, books - is the biggest issue for this country with a booming children's book segment". He points out the work of the Shenzen-based iRead Foundation in promoting reading across China, and reports that the joint IBBY-iRead Outstanding Promoter Award was created in September. The iRead Foundation has pledged 1.2m CNY (approximately $173,000) biennially for the next 20 years for this award.

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