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Friday, November 18, 2011

VICTORY BY JOSEPH CONRAD

BOOK REVIEW
VICTORY
by Joseph Conrad
Anchor Books Edition
A106
1957 edition
originally published 1915

      Increasingly I've been considering the books I'm reading through the lens of publishing.  My previous digital distributor, with whom I maintain a legacy relationship, recently added an "ebook" section to it's upload services, and my thought is that ebooks are AT LEAST as potentially viable for an indie distributor as music.  Ebook sales for genre fiction/bestsellers are approaching and/or surpassing physical books in many cases.
       Additionally, the "store front" component of book sales has experienced challenges analogous to those faced by chain CD stores.  If I was to design an ebook I would keep the following principles in mind:

   1.  texts written before the 20th century are almost entirely copyright free, which means you can reprint popular old books without permission.
   2.  the author and/or subject needs to have an already existing, quantifiable audience, and that audience has to be measurable.
   3.  the book should take advantage of the digital medium to look really spectacular, the way that a modern LP has to have a cover that looks good in a 1" by 1" space.

       So one idea would be to take a lesser known novel of a well known author and find a work in the public domain that could be republished, preferably with an introduction from an individual with their own audience:  an artist, perhaps.  And you could make it a series of reprints.

     All these thoughts were drawn out by reading of VICTORY by Joseph Conrad.  Best known as having written the source material for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (Conrad's short story The Heart of Darkness.)  Victory fits the criteria that it is not covered by copyright.

      Second, there is a market for the underlying author, Joseph Conrad.  If you look at Amazon.com's free Kindle Ebook chart, the Kindle version of Heart of Darkness- free, btw- is #1 on the Fiction/Drama/British & Irish- whatever that means- #1 (Lord Jim is #17 on the same chart.)!  Victory itself is a free kindle ebook, but with a significantly lower rating, #2677.  My sense is that people would pay a dollar or two for a paid version of an otherwise free book if it had some combination of aesthetic appeal OR was a digital version of a limited edition physical book.

   I think Conrad, with his "so old it's new again" take on the Imperialist/Colonialist experience, is a man for his time.  He was... an internationalist, with a career analogous to that of Jack London but in the context of the British Empire.  Victory is what you call "a lesser work" but it has strength and relevance.  It's not hard to  "get" Conrad's characters- with their "us vs. them" assumptions and casual racism they could be the international corporate businessmen of today.  In Victory, the main protagonist is a "Swede" named Heyst. The action is set in 19th century Dutch Indonesia.   The nemesis is a "gentleman" known as "plain Mr. Jones."

  Victory is a "Conrad-ian" tale filled with existential doubt, loathing for humanity and lack of regard for women.  The main villain, Mr. Jones displays a contempt for women that turns into a crucial plot point.  The setting, on an isolated island in Indonesia, echoes the idea of the relationship between an individual man and "civilization" like Heart of Darkness, though in a minor key variation.   I think given the presence of two other Joseph Conrad novels in the top 20 of the FREE books section conclusively demonstrates  that he has an audience.  You could print a small amount of physical books as paperbacks for sale to independent book stores- no more then a hundred.

  I'll note that one of the charms of this particular edition of Victory is the cover- a two tone orange/blue paperback with a 50s/60s graphic vibe.  When I think about the question "is it proper to be nostalgic for periods like the 50s and 60s" this book- published in 1957- makes me answer "yes."  This book is close to a half century used- was last purchased in the late 1960s- presumably used at that point, and is still in great shape in 2011 after a trip to Hawaii and back.  That's quality manufacturing.

   But the main positive aspect of Victory is that it's close to 300 pages and a "page-turner" in it's own early 20th century way.  I don't think you would want to re-publish a 500 or 700 book in real life, and no one wants to read a long book unless it's about child wizards, or vampires.
    But uh, I think republishing old books could be done- the most obvious thing to do is to have a celebrity write an introduction to a free book and have people download it for the association with the celebrity.  I wonder if that is already happening. You could sell the physical edition like a limited edition vinyl record and then if it takes off people buy the download, like they buy the mp3 album.  THINK OF THE POSSIBILITIES. 

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