Look who’s…not here yet

lookwhosbackMost of the time, geographic restrictions on book publishing and e-book sales work against people outside the USA who want to get the latest book from the USA that hasn’t been published where they are. But every so often, it goes the other way around.

A book that has picked up a lot of press over the last month or so is a satire by German author Timur Vermes called Look Who’s Back (or, in the original German, Er ist wieder da, literally “He’s back again.”) As you might guess from the cover image, the “who” in question is one Adolf Hitler.

Written in first person from der Führer’s point of view, the novel chronicles the events that follow when Adolf Hitler unexpectedly wakes up in 2011 Germany with no memory of any events that follow his death at the end of World War II. Taken for a method-acting comedian (because, after all, who would expect him to be the real Hitler?), he achieves modern-day Internet celebrity.

Vermes has said that he wrote the book because Hitler’s true nature has been obscured by a cavalcade of caricatures. People now think of Hitler as either a blatantly obvious madman or an ineffectual idiot, disregarding that neither one of those would have been able to rise to power the way the real Hitler did.

In search of a Hitler beyond the caricatures, [Vermes] decided to read Mein Kampf for the first time. "It’s written in the style of someone who doesn’t normally write: pompous and snivelling, lots of animal metaphors. If one word would do but Hitler knows three, he will use all three."

But, he argues, the book was so dangerous precisely because it’s not full of mad ideas. "Some of it is fairly commonsensical. Take Hitler’s thoughts on housing: he says young people need houses, so the state should build more houses. We can’t declare that wrong simply because it was Hitler who said it."

Part of the book’s satirical point is that, by expressing the same views held by the real historical Hitler, this latter-day Hitler attains popularity because people are willing to listen to what he has to say—just as they were back in the day. In a way, it reminds me of the novel Tempus Fugit, in which three of the USA’s Founding Fathers find themselves alive in the present-day and have to cope with present-day life and make sense of what their fledgling country has become.

Or at least the idea of it does, because the book can’t actually be bought over here yet. Even though it’s got an English translation, the only paper copies are listed as available on the USA’s Amazon come from third-party sellers—obviously, imports—and the e-book version has an availability date listed of December 31, 2035. That has to be a placeholder date; the last time I checked the e-book had a date listed in August of 2015 but they must have changed it. So in actuality there’s nothing to say when the book will be available in the US; maybe the European publisher hasn’t even decided yet.

The book is available in Kindle format in Europe. If you click on the cover of the hardcover to do the look inside the book thing, the preview is of the Kindle version of the English translation, so it definitely exists. It’s just that it’s not licensed for distribution in the USA yet so you can’t actually buy it that way over here.

So, even though the book is getting buzz in the Internet media that are just as accessible in the USA as they are in Europe, people in the USA who want to read it have a harder time getting their hands on it—and if they do buy it, as is the case with the early Harry Potter imports they’re taking money out of the pocket of whoever the eventual American publisher turns out to be.

Or maybe they just take money out of the author’s pocket, period. It took me one minute of searching to find a verifiably real downloadable EPUB of the English translation. It didn’t even require BitTorrent. So if I wanted to read the book without paying for it, I could start right now. As we’ve mentioned time and again, windowing only serves to promote piracy. Even the Big Six publishers realized that when they decided to implement agency pricing.

Publishers need to start getting their acts together, and forge partnerships with foreign publishers if they can’t world-publish themselves. The book has already been translated into English, so it’s not as if it would need to go through another edit pass. They just need to get it printed and into the distribution system. And ideally they should figure out how to do that quickly, so they can strike while the iron of publicity is hot. Who’s even going to remember the publicity about this book by the time it finally does come out in the USA?

Indeed, why do they even need a publisher at all, as opposed to a local printer with a distribution deal? We have the technology to do that now. Books can be printed on demand anywhere in the world there’s a printer capable of downloading the book file. And e-books, of course, can be downloaded from anywhere. It shouldn’t be necessary to go through a whole other corporate entity, including granting that entity a chunk of the book’s retail price for simply acting as a distributor of a work that’s already been translated and edited. But I suppose that’s just not the way things are done, and the built-up accumulation of business practices over the decades still limits publisher flexibility in that way, as it has lately in so many others.

So perhaps the book is ironic in that way, too. The distribution of a tale of Hitler reawakening in the modern era runs up against problems fomented by an industry whose business practices haven’t changed substantially since the real Hitler was alive.

4 Comments on Look who’s…not here yet

  1. I agree with the general point on windowing and that publishing need to act quicker. But to say

    “Publishers need to start getting their acts together, and forge partnerships with foreign publishers if they can’t world-publish themselves”

    is jaw-droppingly ignorant of the publishing process. This is, in fact, what they try to do. MacLehose Press owns world English rights http://www.melleragency.com/shared/autordetail.php?leng=en&open=2&autor=238 and that they haven’t sold it into the USA is not for lack of trying. It is just that no one has bitten yet. They ostensibly have a US office as they are owned by Quercus, but as they are in the midst of being sold to Hodder, everything would be on hold.

    Yes, they could probably bring the book out in p.o.d. and in ebook, but there is a business decision to make here. Selling the rights to a US publisher would probably make them more money – and crucially have far less risk – than either going through traditional channels, p.o.d. or digital only.

    Balanced against this is, though there has been a lot of press, we probably aren’t talking massive sales here. In MacLehose’s home market the UK, Look Who’s Back has had a lot of hype, and has sold 6,093 print units through BookScan since its pub date on 3rd April, maybe 2,000 more units in digital. Very respectable for translated literary fiction (and from a German author, still a bit dicey in Britain), but nothing to retire on. So the wait may be taking money away from a potential US publisher, but I don’t think much. I think it’s smart business from MacLehose to wait for to sell US rights, and I imagine when it is sold and released the publicity iron could heat up again.

    Btw, using Harry Potter as an example of how a US publisher has lost out due to windowing is ludicrous. I think Scholastic have done all right indeed with JK Rowling (66.3 million units through BookScan US alone).

    And

    “The book has already been translated into English, so it’s not as if it would need to go through another edit pass”

    Really? It is in in British English and I think it would need a rejig (“two nations divided by a common language” and all that). And I don’t think there is a publisher worth their salt that would acquire a translated title would use someone else’s translation.

  2. Maybe Scholastic has “done all right,” but if Harry Potter’s publishers hadn’t been conscious of just how much money was being lost in the US by staggering the releases of the books and causing people to order in the UK edition from overseas, they wouldn’t have been in such a rush to standardize on simultaneous day and date releases in the US and the UK the way they did after just the first three books. (And even the third book editions were only a couple of months apart.) Granted, that’s probably just because of how popular the books were that so much money was at stake anyway, but still.

    And Americanization of British works seems to be a relatively recent thing, and generally done for children’s books like Potter, since it’s assumed children will have a hard time with variant spellings and such. Tolkien still has plenty of Britishisms, including the good old “-our” spelling of words like “honour” and “colour.” I don’t think there’d be a particular need to do it for books like this.

  3. Actually a lot of British books get the Americanization treatment. While it’s usually genre books, I noticed this in a literary novel translated from the French. A character in Europe was watching a “soccer” game; sorry Charlie, they call it “football” over there. I suppose some American don’t know that, but it isn’t so hard to learn. Just like a man in London going out for a fag isn’t looking for homosexuals.

    Anyone with a brain, I think, should be able to figure out the different ways different countries use English, and this trend to Americanize things makes me feel shame.

  4. Good points. Wrestling with all the messiness of releasing digital versions of Lily’s Ride all over, I wonder why publishing adapts so slowly. When I uploaded the CreateSpace version, Amazon was nice enough to extract what it calls a “Kindle cover” and supply it to me. But did they really have to make it just a tiny bit smaller than the iBookstore’s minimum cover size?
    Keep in mind that releasing a book in a country is not that technological. It is mostly about advertising, distribution and marketing. Someone has to be found to do all that and that’s what takes time. The bigger deal a book is, the more that matters.

    –Michael W. Perry, Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan

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