Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Penguin Random House

The biggest publishing industry news going around is the merger between Penguin and Random House. One is a grand old dame, a queen of the industry, old money, and the other a brash young united states of ‘once known but now anonymous’ publishers – think Fifty Shades. (Interestingly, Rupert Murdock apparently offered to buy Penguin for GBP 1 billion, but was rebuffed. The queen was not willing to stoop that low?) Fittingly, the new entity is called Penguin Random House, so the monarch gets to keep her name, even if not the power. Various sources say that it could take up to a year (earliest mid-2013) for final approval and that, in the meantime, it’s business as usual.

Still, the aftershocks running through the industry will take a while to settle, if at all. Together, the new group will control 25% of the market, which might be scary, but is not; they controlled it anyway. "From the perspective of a reader, author or agent there won't be very much change in the day-to-day operations of the companies," says John Makinson, the current CEO of Penguin and the future chairman of the new company. The CEO of the new company will be Markus Dohle , currently chief executive of Random House.
That this is a reaction to new realities in the book industry is a no brainer. But which reality, specifically? It is easier to understand what Random House would want from Penguin; their back list and classics are to die for. Besides, they also do their own distribution. In Malaysia, distribution of Penguin books used to be handled by STP (later by Times, later still by Pansing) before the parent company set up their own warehouse and operations here. (Pearson also distributes Faber.) It’s unclear if distribution will be an expertise Penguin will bring to the merger.

What does Penguin get from the merger? Protection? Penguin US was one of the two publishers (the other being Macmillan) that declined to settle the civil antitrust case brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ). (Random House was not named in the action.) Apple has been quoted as saying that Amazon is playing the DOJ like a violin. So will one and one make three?

Despite all the usual platitudes following the merger, one wonders if something more serious is afoot?  The merger will make Penguin Random House the largest book publisher in the world.  Large enough to take on Amazon?  Large enough not to have to live in terror of Amazon’s control over that ‘buy’ button?  Large enough to set up a distribution network to fight Tyrannosaurus Rex on its own turf?

It will certainly be good for the industry if that first beast is kept under control, but having two predatory beasts roaming the earth is not very comforting either. It's like Jurassic Park? I’m not sure if it's scary or comforting. I prefer a world with no superpowers, but who’s listening?

The book industry is adapting

A new report in The Atlantic by Peter Osnos entitled Ignore the Doomsayers: The Book Industry Is Actually Adapting Well says that,  “Numbers show that the publishing industry is handling the rise of e-readers better than what folk knowledge might suggest,” and that, “For all the complexities that publishing faces, the notion that books are somehow less of a factor in the cultural or information ecosystem of our time doesn't hold up to the evidence.”

According to Publishers Weekly in a story titled A Solid Six Months for Trade Sales, “Sales of adult and children’s trade titles rose 13.8% (in the US) in the first six months of 2012, according to statistics released last week by the Association of American Publishers as part of its StatShot program. Total industry sales rose 4.4%, to $5.79 billion, at the 1,186 publishers that report revenue to AAP.”

Back to the first story, there’s this interesting bit vis-a-vis Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, “Instead of the competition among traditional booksellers for the attention of readers that was for so long the way books were sold, publishers now must confront the immense power and reach of tech giants and adapt to their influence. These companies are so much larger than even the biggest of publishers that accommodating their demands on price and promotion is a formidable task and is the reason why it looks (and often feels) that publishers are on the defensive.”

Could this be one of the reasons for the Penguin-Random House merger? (See story above.)

Faulkner’s estate sues Sony pictures

(From The case: that Sony infringed copyright when actor Owen Wilson used (misquoted) a line from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun in the movie, Midnight in Paris. Wilson’s character, Pender, says, "The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party."

Faulkner’s original: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Faulkner died in 1962, and we are talking of eight (8) words! This is crazy.

The copyright regime is quite complicated, with each country having its own version of the Berne Convention (either voluntarily or as a result of arm twisting by the ‘big’ boys). In Malaysia, copyright lasts for fifty years after the death of the author; in the US, Europe and some other countries, this has been extended to 70 years. (In Europe there is a proposal on the table to extend copyright of sound recordings to 95 years after the death of the ‘author’). Then, there is the ‘fair use” clause, which is what Sony will surely argue.

Copyright laws are primarily about protecting the rights of economic exploitation of an author’s work. It sounds fair in most cases when the author is still alive, but becomes absurd when applied to cover all works for 50-70 years after his/her death. In Malaysia, alone, there are hundreds of important and wonderful books that are no longer in print and cannot be reprinted due to copyright laws, even if the author is dead, the original publishers no longer exist, or even if they are no longer interested in republishing it. But, will not let others to do it, either. (The laws are, also, deliberately vague in this respect.) This dog-in-the-manger attitude has killed, and is killing, an entire history and culture. Think of its impact worldwide.

Then, in the case of ‘big’ authors there are entire estates and bands of lawyers that live off the works parasitically for 70 years after his death. Am I the only one who finds this ridiculous and obscene? The author belongs to the people. To them, the author is not dead; he continues to live. Imagine a world where the works of Shakespeare, Kalidasa and Confucius continue to be exploited by their estate and no quote or idea can be used without permission. We will surely end up going back to cave-dwelling.

(There is an amazing story I'd like to share. There was a extremely eminent composer in South Indian Carnatic music called Tyagaraja, whose works are still played hundreds (maybe thousands) of times daily. Interestingly, there is also songs attributed to him but he did not write. Apparently, in those days, one of the better ways of getting one's songs performed was to pretend they were his, and many of the apocryphal ones still survive today! Looks like civilisation has had other alternatives to the present copyright regime. Perhaps it is time to re-look at some of them. After all, culture is more important than ownership, exploitation and greed.)

Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was published in 1950 and the words “The past is never dead" entered the English language vocabulary years ago, and is used freely and frequently, and in many forms. It, like many other terms, has become an inseparable part of a culture. That is the nature of good literature; it grows culture; it grows language; it’s never forgotten or ignored. Roland Barthe said in his 1967 essay, The Death of the Author, that a literary work is separated from its creator the moment it leaves his desk.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Ibn Khaldun International Conference of 2012

(Sorry for this late blog, but you still have two days left to register for this conference.)


It is our utmost pleasure to extend our invitation to all researchers, and in particular postgraduate students, who have an interest in attending the Ibn Khaldun International Conference of 2012 being held at University Malaya. This is a highly specialized conference where few scholars will present papers; others will deliver workshops revolving around research on Ibn Khaldun. If you are interested in attending the conference to learn from prominent speakers and further receive a certificate of participation, kindly register at the Department of Islamic History and Civilization prior to the 3rd of October in order that we may reserve your place; as seats are very limited.

Contact our registration committee: Tel. No: 603 7967 6008(Main Office)

The fee structure is as follows: 50 RM for University Malaya Students; 100 RM for other participants and students from outside University Malaya

Certificates will be mailed to the participants a few days following the conference. Participants will be required to sign attendance for the two days of the conference to be eligible for a certificate.
Food and refreshments will be provided throughout the two days of the conference.

This conference is jointly organised by

    The Department of Islamic History and Civilization, University of Malaya;
    The International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS);
    The Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore; and
    The International Ibn Khaldun Society.

We look forward to seeing you there.

UM English department one-day colloquim

The Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, will be hosting a one-day colloquium. Details are as follows:


A colloquium organized by the Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur

This one-day colloquium aims to stimulate interdisciplinary debate and discussion on cities and their increasing rise, evolution and influence in today’s world. The Financial Times of New York estimates that by 2030, city dwellers on the planet will number more than five billion, and that this urban explosion will create tremendous challenges on all fronts: social, environmental, cultural, political and economic. Apart from the material pressures that this demographic trend exerts on matters such as infrastructure, healthcare, employment, food, water, energy and the land as a whole, the demand for human development and community building in fields such as the arts, culture and education is also paramount. Abstracts of around two hundred words for a twenty-minute presentation are invited on any of the following:

Cities, concrete and imaginary
Cities as geological spaces/cities as built and natural environments
The city state and its citizens
Sex(ualities) and the city
Religion and the city
Theorizing the city/ the place of cities
Postmodern cities
Virtual cities
The ecosystem of cities
The city and cultural production
The city and popular culture
Postcolonial cities
Social and environmental justice issues (urban poor, toxic cities, etc.) in the city
Re-conceptualising urban spaces
Urban ecocriticism (the wilderness and the urban, the city and the bioregion, urban animals, etc.)
Urban fiction, poetry, drama, memoir, essays, nature writing, film, journalism, etc.
Migration into and out of cities
Ethical cities
Cities past, present and future
The language of and about the city
Cosmopolitanism and the city
Multicultural and global cities
Date      :            December 4, 2012
Time     :             8.30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Venue  :              Rumah Universiti, University of Malaya
Fee        :            RM 50 (academic staff and non-academic visitors) RM 25 (postgraduate students)
Lunch and tea will be provided.

Please email your abstract to or by Wednesday, October 31, 2012.