Why a Nobel Laureate Struggles to Sell Books in America

Wwhen Abdulrazak Gurnah published his 10th book, Afterlife, last year his editor was sure it would be his first big bestseller. For more than three decades, he had drawn rave reviews but never gained a large readership.

“I have felt that there is a much larger audience for him out there,” says Alexandra Pringle, executive publisher of Bloomsbury, who has worked with Gurnah for more than 20 years. “I thought, ‘This is what this will be his moment.'”

Afterlife, which explores the brutality of Germany’s colonial rule in East Africa, was published in the UK in September 2020 and was hailed as a masterpiece. But it did not reach a wide readership and was not even published in the United States. Pringle wondered if Gurnah’s moment might never come.

A year later, it finally did. Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, bringing him in the company of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus and William Faulkner, and he became the first black prize winner since Toni Morrison in 1993. The news made bookstores around the world struggle to stock his novels. and set in motion a frenzy to secure translation and reprint rights. His agent, Peter Straus, says foreign rights to his books have been sold in “30 territories and rising”.

Following the Nobel announcement, Straus began submitting bids from six other American publishers Afterlife. American rights to the novel sold to Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Random House, which plans to publish it in August 2022. Riverhead also acquired North American rights to two older Gurnah books, By the sea and Desertion, which had expired.

Rebecca Saletan, who acquired the books for Riverhead, said in a press release that she was attracted to “the combination of narrative magic and a deeply inhabited and often destructive depiction of the colonial and postcolonial experience” in Gurnah’s work.



So much of what we think of as literature is at the mercy of people who can afford books, and so much of this is based on whatever fashion is.

But as offers poured in from international publishers, many readers eager to try Gurnah’s work were frustrated. Audiences were suddenly there, but copies of his books were not – in several cases, even e-book and audiobook versions are not available.

The reasons for the shortage are many. Due to the low demand for Gurnah’s work over the decades, many of his titles were sold out in the United States and in low stock in the United Kingdom. And supply chain problems – with backups at paper mills, printing works, shipping containers and warehouses – have made it difficult to print new copies now that demand has risen.

It is not uncommon for publishers and booksellers to be taken by surprise by the Nobel Prize. Unlike other major literary awards, such as the Booker and National Book Awards, which announce longlisted candidates and finalists in advance, the Nobel Prize is a black box and has often been awarded to writers of low international profile, including German author Herta Muller. Austrian playwright and poet Elfriede Jelinek, and French author Patrick Modiano. In some cases, publishers have quickly had to acquire rights and order translations.

This year, logistical hassles have made it even harder for booksellers to catch up with the growing interest.

“We have relatively little stock and it’s all shot out the door and we’re waiting, as everyone is on the printing presses,” James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble, said in an interview almost two weeks after the Nobel Prize was announced. .

Gurnah’s victory prompted booksellers around the world to fight to store his novels and acquire rights

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One week after Gurnah received the Nobel Prize, a customer service representative at a Barnes & Noble said it had a single copy of one of Gurnah’s novels, Gravel heart, in the store, but even that copy was picked from the shelves. Nearly three weeks after the Nobel announcement, Barnes & Noble’s website had digital editions of Gurnah’s novels, but only one, Paradise, was available in print. On Monday, Shannon DeVito, director of books for Barnes & Noble, said stores were still waiting for the stock they had ordered on the day of the announcement and that they expected orders for a few thousand copies to arrive this week.

On Amazon, printed editions of several of Gurnah’s titles were listed as sold out in print, and some were available for resale at exorbitant prices.

Independent bookstores have also been sitting idle. Lindsay Lynch, a buyer at Parnassus Books, says the store has been trying to get paperback copies of Gravel heart and The last gift from Bloomsbury, but they are backordered.

At Third Place Books, an independent chain, a few orders came in for Gurnah’s books, and the store was able to get copies of Paradise, but is still waiting for other titles to become available. “Almost all of them are sold out,” says Robert Sindelar, a managing partner for the store.

Mark LaFramboise, a book buyer at the Politics and Prose store, says the store often struggles to grab a new Nobel laureate, but this year it has been unusually difficult. “In a typical year it would take about two weeks. This year I hesitate to guess,” he says.

In the UK, Bloomsbury has ordered “tens of thousands” of reprints, which are shipped worldwide, Pringle says. “Our printers are doing really well, they’re pulling everything out.”

The annual announcement of the Nobel Laureate often sends the book industry into chaos

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In the United States, stock rebuilding has been more challenging. The majority of Gurnah’s catalog is published by Bloomsbury USA, which has six of his books. Bloomsbury expects to have copies of Gravel heart and The last gift in stock in mid-November. Bloomsbury said it had seen a marked bump in e-book sales, but declined to share prints or sales figures.

The New Press, an independent American publishing house that published three of Gurnah’s books in the 1990s and 2000s, had 126 copies of his novel. Paradise in stock before the Nobel Prize was announced and was quickly sold out. It has received orders for more than 19,000 copies of Paradise – which had sold only 5,763 copies since its release in 1994.

As luck would have it, New Press had signed up for the novel in a print-to-order program through book distributor Ingram, which allows publishers to fulfill customer orders quickly and ship them from Ingram’s warehouse. The publisher will also publish a digital edition of Paradise soon.

Ellen Adler, the publisher of New Press, says she is relieved and happy that the company can complete the hunt for orders, noting that she was struck by a comment that Gurnah made after being asked to knowing that he had won the award when he confessed that he was hoping to get a larger audience.

“Mr Gurnah is right that he could cope with more readers,” she says.

Similar lamentations were made by fans in the literary community. In the magazine Fragile paper, which published comments from 103 African authors on the importance of Gurnah’s work, several authors said they hoped the award would increase his global profile. “Our well-kept secret is out in the open!” wrote Leila Aboulela.

Gurnah, on the other hand, was pleased with his relatively small following in an interview with New York Times after Nobel’s announcement.

“The inability to find an audience is not the fault of the author or publishers,” he said. “So much of what we think of as literature is at the mercy of people who can afford to buy books, and so much of this is based on whatever is mature.”

Pringle, his editor, feels convinced that Gurnah’s moment has not only come, but will also last.

“He is a master and one of Africa’s greatest living writers,” she says. “He will now be published and read all over the world.”

This article originally appeared in New York Times

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