Sunday, December 07, 2008

Speaking in Croatia (Part 4) - Publishing and reading trends in Croatia

[From Part 3]

My visit to the Pula Book Fair made me think of the Globalisation phenomenon, and not simply about "books and libraries".

Sounds like one of the opening chapter of Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat", doesn't it?

Well, it's made me think how globalisation has made reading tastes increasingly similar worldwide; how it drives commercial interests and industry; and coping strategies for people in the creative industries.

Croatian Library Association: Librarian Roundtable

The session confirmed that popular works are well-received worldwide.

What was popular among Croatian children and teens were also what Singaporean children and teens liked -- R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series, Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series...

Their libraries also have comics and Manga (also translated to Croatian).

As mentioned in the previous post, various speakers and librarians kept saying at how majority of Children's Literature published in Croatia was of "poor quality"

Part of the problem was the poor quality of translations of works published outside of Croatia, said at least two of the speakers. The publishers tend to award the translation work to the cheapest, rather than the best translator. In some cases, the translations could be totally unrelated to the original meaning.

One of the presenter was an award-winning Croatian author (she writes for both Children and Adult markets). She says it's hard to get published, even when she has won several awards for her works. She gets by from writing columns and taking on translations.

There's a vicious cycle of sorts:

Croatian publishers hesitate to publish works by new and hence unknown authors, even though they may be considered "Literary" (as "Literary" may not mean "popular"). Most publishers tend to opt for commercial sure-winners, which are often translated works by non-Croatian authors. And when some publishers hire the cheapest translator, this may lead to the problem of "quality" mentioned earlier.

So as I piece the following thoughts together, I realised the underlying issues have more to do with globalisation than publishing or writing or reading per se.

Homogenisation of Reading Tastes
First, reading tastes seem to be the same worldwide.

A good story, is a good story (assuming it is adequately translated). Everyone enjoys a good tale. Everyone wants to be entertained.

Or that cultural contextual differences have become narrower.

Maybe this part of an inevitable "homogenisation of Global Culture", as we become a more connected world. Pros and cons to this phenomenon (same issues as Globalisation). You know, about how indigenious (literary) culture might be overwhelmed by foreign influences.

Although I feel there are no "good" or "bad".

It just is.

Singapore Publishing and Public Libraries
Second thought was about Singapore publishing industry and the acquisition of works for public libraries.

With English as our lingua franca, our public libraries are not dependent on our local publishing output to maintain a well-stocked collection. Vast majority of the works in English acquired by our public libraries are from the US and UK.

So we've largely avoided the problem of "quality" as what seems to be the case for Croatia (and also of countries with its own unique language, whose reading population are growing in sophistication).

This is a good thing, where our public library users are concerned.

The downside is, I think, a lower "natural tendency" for local writing to be developed on its own. Not when our English language reading needs are largely fulfilled.

But I'm re-looking at the above assumption. From what I've learned from the visit to Croatia, there is a difference between a nation's literary scene and the publishing industry.

Literature Vs Publishing
Third, I think publishing woes exist in every country. It was a matter of degrees.

And having a vibrant literary scene doesn't necessarily mean an equally "exciting" publishing scene.

There were many celebrated Croatian authors at the Pula Book Fair. The Croatian librarians kept pointing out to me the many well-regarded Croatian authors who write for Children and adults. I think easily 20 authors. Easy to spot them, since the authors and guests of the Book Fair stayed at the same hotel.

When I last attended an award ceremony for Singapore authors, I don't think we have so many under one roof compared to the number of authors who gathered at Pula (even if we had, the reactions from readers are much more subdued). And I was told the Pula Book Fair isn't the biggest.

With so many well-regarded Croatian authors, I'd assumed that the Croatian publishing scene was equally lucrative.

But as the Librarian Weekend discussion revealed, they also have issues with "quality of writing", the plight of authors trying to make a living from writing, about the commercial decisions of publishers.

Without publishers to produce and ultimately print those books, those works won't see the light of day in their own country. The surest way for a publisher to eliminate risk is simply to not take on unknown authors.

All three thoughts led me to this: START LOCAL, AIM GLOBAL.

Our public library users will expect more works from other countries. Or in the case of countries like Croatia, the trend towards translated works will only increase.

The Singapore literary-publishing scene will continue to be relatively small. Even for Croatia, they are already saying there is a small market in their own country, which has made publishers more risk-adverse to publishing works for a niche market.

Barring a natural or man-made catastrophe, the world can only get more and more connected.

The issue of "home-grown talents not being recognised at home" is nothing new. And certainly not unique to any one creative industry.

"Staring local" means testing one's audiences, honing one's skills, gaining some measure of confidence. But with the long term view of producing for a global marketplace. I think that is probably where the market is (unless you are the world's biggest importer of goods and services like US and China).

It doesn't mean one has to succeed locally before going global.

I think this is the only long-term solution for people in the creative industry, especially small countries like Singapore, if one wants to make a living.

Not that all this is any ground-breaking concept. Thomas Friedman's books on Globalisation are excellent reads on this issue. And it's clear Singapore's direction has been this for years.

Just that writing about the trip to the Pula Book Fair has reinforced this for me.

And I'm wondering, does the "Start Local; Aim Global" strategy apply to libraries and librarians too?

If one considers librarianship and roles of libraries in a general sense, I think it does. Something to explore for some other blog post.

[Next: Part 5 - more about public libraries in Croatia]


  1. "It doesn't mean one has to succeed locally before going global."

    The Chinese music scene in S'pore is a good example of what you said above. Stephanie Sun, Lin Junjie, Tanya Chua are artistes who skipped the local market and launched their career overseas.

    I think this can apply to our writers as well, as long as their works have universal appeal and is not restricted to the local market.


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