"Thanks, Herta Muller!" The Nobel prize lifts a small press

Try to see it as a victory for the little guy. While there are plenty of US readers who would have rather seen the 2009 Nobel prize for literature go to John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, somewhere in Nebraska a group of book lovers was cheering last week's selection of lesser-known Romanian novelist Herta Muller.

And with good reason. They would be the employees of the University of Nebraska Press, a tiny academic publisher now blessed twice by what you might call "the Nobel effect." The UNP is not only one of the few American presses to publish Muller in translation (they have an English-language edition of her book "Nadirs") but they had also published two translated versions of works by last year's Nobel prize winner, French writer J.M.G. Le Clézio.

UNP publicity manager Cara Pesek told book blogger C. Max Magee that, while in 2007 the publisher sold just “a handful” of the two Le Clézio titles ("The Round and Other Hard Cold Facts" and "Onitsha"), after the prize was announced last year the two titles went on to account for more than $100,000 in incremental sales.

Pesek also said that the day after the 2009 Nobel was announced last week, the press already had 3,000 backorders for "Nadirs."

Sometimes, Magee points out, a book award validates the public's critical opinion. For American readers, however, it seems that the Nobel prize for literature only rarely provides that service. But it does fill another need.

As Magee puts it, what the Nobel prize does for book lovers in this country is to remind us to cherish our tiny presses. They do us the favor, he says, of publishing the works of authors of whom we are largely unaware, keeping them available until that moment – perhaps a major award or some other  dramatic leap onto the world stage – when "the rest of us are able to take notice."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/MarjorieKehe.  

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