Writing's on the wall

While readers welcomed fresh writing talent as established authors retired, print publishing was put on the defensive by the spread of e-books, writes James Kidd

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm

How will the book world remember 2013? Let me count the ways. Anyone who even glimpsed a publishing trade paper will know the industry remains obsessed with the impact of technology. How can paperbacks compete against the internet and Amazon? Is the high-street bookshop an endangered species? Are audiobook downloads changing readers into listeners? And what about the rise of e-book self-publishing?

David Shelley, J.K. Rowling's editor for The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo's Calling (as Robert Galbraith), sounded an optimistic note. "E-books now make up around 30 per cent of our sales, so they have definitely hit the bookselling trade. In terms of internet self-publishing, this could seem a bad thing, but actually I would argue that it has been good," he says. "Some of the most successful physical books of recent years started off as self-published - most prominently E.L. James. I think self-published e-books are a good way of authors getting their work out there."

E-books now make up around 30 per cent of our sales, so they have definitely hit the bookselling trade
David Shelley, editor

Shelley strikes a more cautious tone when asked about the erosion of bookshops and libraries from London to Kowloon. "It's obviously challenging, given competition from e-books and online retailers, but I think most publishers are working closely with bookshops. They are valuable partners, without whom readers may not discover books. I would say the same for libraries, some of whom are under threat at the moment but who are incredibly important."

Amid all this techno-din, you could occasionally hear authors and their books getting words in edgewise. If any major themes dominated the year, they were generation gaps and the sense of a passing of the guard - 2013 was the year of the big literary retirement.

Philip Roth, Jim Crace and Alice Munro all announced the end of their careers - although only Roth, who celebrated his 80th birthday in March, kept to his word. Crace reneged after Harvest, his 10th novel, raced into poll position to win 2013's Man Booker. What Crace's thoughts were after he was beaten to Britain's largest literary prize by Eleanor Catton's 832-page The Luminaries remains unknown for now.

Munro too ate her words about laying down her pen. Unlike Crace, her reason was the biggest literary win of them all: 2013's Nobel Prize. At a time when publishers would rather eat 832 pages of The Luminaries than publish a collection of short stories, Munro's victory was a triumph for an entire mode of writing as well as an individual.

And yet, the old order gave way to the new. In a year that saw the passing of Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney, Elmore Leonard, Iain Banks and Paul Torday, the literary world crowned a possible replacement in Catton, at 27 years old the youngest winner of the Man Booker ever. Like South African-born Lessing, Catton hailed from the farthest-flung reaches of the Commonwealth - New Zealand - and specialises in a heady brew of ambitious narrative fiction, experimental structure and a vibrant narrative voice.

The other major Man Booker earthquake concerned the Man Booker itself. Among various rule changes that will come into effect in 2014 is the admittance of American writers. So Donna Tartt's excellent The Goldfinch might rub shoulders with Hanif Kureishi's The Last Word. The move earned the wrath of Crace, Jeanette Winterson and Julian Barnes, who termed it "capitalist expansionism".

Even this profound culture shift would be hard-pressed to beat the news that Quotations from Chairman Mao, the "little red book" that has "sold" an estimated billion copies, is out of print in China. According to Foreign Policy, it is possible to purchase a "fashionable canvas" wallet inspired by Quotations (costing US$6.50) and download a disco remix, yet no publishing house is printing it. Explanations range from the legal (the book lacks the requisite registration number) to the political: the slow fallout from Deng Xiaoping's downgrading of Mao Zedong in the 1970s.

On the mainland, the best-seller list continues to mix high-brow world classics (Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) with home-grown works. The big winner among Chinese authors is Jiang Nan, who is 2013's wealthiest author with royalties of 25.5 million yuan (HK$32.3 million). His Dragon Raja series has helped him leapfrog over perennials such as Zheng Yuanjie and Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan. The one to watch, in a year that has seen Nanpai Sanshu and Han Han fall in readers' affections, is former journalist Chai Jing, whose best-seller Insight put her into the top 10.

Overseas Chinese writers triumphed in different genres. Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement offers racy historical thrills, following the lives of Shanghai courtesans over a century. Jung Chang's biography of Empress Dowager Cixi tells the life of China's Queen Victoria. Ma Jian's The Dark Road paints a bleak, uncompromising portrait of China under the one-child law.

Globally, it was business as usual. Dan Brown's Inferno triumphed everywhere books are read. Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling seemed a shock No1 until it was revealed this was a pseudonym for Rowling. The most welcome commercial hit was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which married wonderful writing to an addictive plot. A movie adaptation directed by David Fincher should increase its sales.

In non-fiction, the major winners were Steve Jobs, whose biography by Walter Isaacson was a strong seller in Hong Kong, the mainland and the world over. Morrissey, singer of The Smiths, held Penguin to ransom over his autobiography, insisting he be published by Penguin Classics. His wish was granted, allowing him to be on the same side as Keats, Yeats and Wilde.

Perhaps 2013's most heart-warming triumph was that of Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for her outspoken views on women and education. Her dignified recovery, and the popularity of her memoir, I am Malala, were genuine high points for anyone interested in books and humankind generally.

Modern writers didn't have it all their own way in 2013. Two novels from the past won a broad, brand-new readership. On the mainland, James Joyce's mind-boggling literary crossword Finnegan's Wake hit best-seller lists in Shanghai thanks to Dai Congrong's superb translation. One is tempted to ask when it will be translated into English, but that is for another day.

In Britain, the last major high street book chain, Waterstones, voted a novel from 1965 as their book of year: John Williams' melancholy campus novel, Stoner.

As for 2014, Shelley obviously recommends the new Rowling/Galbraith crime novel, but suggests readers watch out for The Collected Works of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, "a novel about books and the people who love them. It's very warm, moving and unexpected."

Also keep an eye out for two novels by two young American women. Hanya Yanagihara's extraordinary The People in the Trees is a provocative, uncompromising but absorbing intellectual mystery. If you want 2014's Twilight and The Hunger Games, you should read the "Divergent" trilogy by Veronica Roth. Part one, Divergent, is due in cinemas in March. Episode three, Allegiant, has caused a furore among her many teenage readers. This should ensure that despite Philip's retirement, 2014 can still be a Roth-heavy year.