There’s a hidden cost to Bob Dylan’s Nobel win, says one of the world’s top publishing execs

Odds and ends.
Odds and ends.
Image: AP Photo/Pierre Godot
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American folk musician Bob Dylan’s controversial win of the Nobel prize for literature last week caused some to decry the state of books. But there might be an economic downside too.

On Wednesday Jacob Dalborg, CEO of Swedish publishing giant Bonnier Books, gave a talk at Frankfurt Book Fair on his expansion plans in Scandinavia and the US. Asked his opinion about the award this year, Dalborg replied, “I think it’s sad that it isn’t a Nobel prize winner where the bookshops and booksellers can sell more books. I think that’s sad.”

Dalborg’s comment, however brief, highlights what many in the industry see as a reality of literary prizes: the chance to sell more books. Authors, publishers, distributors, and booksellers as big as Walmart and as small as independent bookshops all benefit from people rushing to buy up works by Pulitzer-, Nobel-, and National Book Award-winning authors.

As Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, noted earlier in the day, The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, had a modest print run when it was originally published in Korean in 2007. It wasn’t until the book was translated into English, by Deborah Smith, and won the prestigious Man Booker International (given for books translated into English), that sales of the Korean-language original shot to half a million.

That effect is visible even for a prize like the Nobel, which is usually given to an established author. Two years ago virtually no books by French writer Patrick Modiano were available in English; since he won the Nobel, new translations of at least 10 of them have been released.

Though the win will surely be great for Dylan’s album sales and downloads—and though there are reportedly 1,000 books written about him—it’s a loss, this year anyway, for the business of books.