Are you one of the Nobel Prize-winning-authors that we scared into thinking was going to lose your book deal? Well, you can take a deep breath — because it's probably not going to happen. We do have some news, however, regarding why the Harvard of the publishing world is looking a little less appealing this week.
In a segment on international literature Wednesday, David Kipen of the National Endowment of Arts told us that Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz lost his book deal with a major American publishing house because sales were lower than expected. The novelist was forced to move over to the smaller Melville House for lack of options, he suggested — shocking all you aspiring Nobel Prize-winners who thought the award was a guaranteed ticket to success.
Turns out this wasn't true. A Nobel Prize is still a fine way to keep a book deal (along with a long list of other hard-earned perks). Kertesz's current publisher — Dennis Johnson of Melville — got in touch with us and clarified that the prestigious Knopf never tried to get rid of the Hungarian author. (You can read his e-mail after the jump). Rather, the independent publisher approached Kertesz — and made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
More and more highly esteemed authors are choosing to go with smaller houses like Melville, said Johnson in a follow-up conversation, adding, "It's a great honor for me to publish Kertesz. I'm going to keep that book in print until I die."
Who publishes where may seem like small beans, but as the economy goes haywire and publishing houses tremble, these are details that affect just about anyone who likes to read.
Knopf — Kertesz's original publisher — has long been considered the Harvard of the publishing world — while Melville is more like a lesser known, but well-respected liberal arts college. If someone leaves Knopf, people in the publishing world assume that they were booted because their grades (or sales in this case) weren't making the cut. And when really big, highly esteemed names lose contracts, it starts to look like literary doomsday.
After talking further with Kipen (who apologized for his "fairly outdated assumption that every writer in their right mind would rather publish with Knopf") and Johnson, it's looking less grim.
Major publishing houses have not lost all sense of respect for great authors ... just yet. But as they head that way, smaller publishers —- that are more willing to take risks on new authors and ideas — are gearing up to fill the void.
"Even if it was arguable two weeks ago, it's true now ... the smart independent publishers are going to dine out on the big houses' hesitance," said Kipen.
E-Mail From Dennis Johnson, Publisher, Melville House
Your interview with our author David Kipen regarding, in part, another of our authors, Imre Kertesz, was both inaccurate and offensive. Let me state emphatically, in full confidence my counterpart at Knopf, Sonny Mehta, will confirm: Imre Kertesz, a man who not only won the Nobel Prize but survived three Nazi death camps — including Auschwitz and Buchenwald — was not "dropped" by Knopf, due to low sales or any other reason. He was not dropped at all; He chose to come to Melville House. To state that this important writer — this important human being — has no mind of his own is preposterous, as well as deeply insulting. And the claim, as further elaborated by your guest expert, constitutes a more general kind of misleading reportage. There are vast differences between conglomerate publishing and independent publishing, and the fact is that writers — and readers — may prefer one over the other. The question to ask is why would a writer such as Kertesz make such a transition? This would have led to far more interesting insight into the state of translated work in America than tired and inaccurate supposition about sales figures. In fact, your report was thus also inaccurate in its implications of a "ghettoization" of such literature: Imre Kerteszs books with Melville House have been every bit as circulated as they were with Knopf — in fact we have exactly the same Random House sales and distribution team. And so far his sales with each publisher are about the same (meaning, your reports implication that they will diminish with an independent publisher is another demonstrable inaccuracy — simply look at the Bookscan figures). Meanwhile Knopf keeps Kertesz's several titles with them in print, and Melville House schedules still more of his titles for publication in the future. In short, publishing and writing isn't entirely about sales, and its a shame you've perpetrated such a canard about the business, as well as two of its most conscientious publishers, and, worst of all, Imre Kertesz.