What Sells Books

February 9th, 2016

The other day I was in my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library. It’s a small branch within a community center. They do a good job of serving our neighborhood, of course with a full assortment of reading spaces, working spaces for students, a play space for the kiddies, a handful of computers and a small art gallery, for neighborhood artists, with new shows debuting each month. Up front there’s the new and notable shelves, some fiction, non-fiction, and new DVDs.

My neighborhood is called “Grandview–Woodland.” Wikipedia says that the demographics balance young and old, half under the age of 40; half older. English is the first language for less than two-thirds of the residents. Lots of cultures are represented. Originally known as an Italian neighborhood, it’s now the usual contemporary Canadian polyglot, including a strong First Nations community. A third of the population live in low income households.


The Yale Edition

And so I was surprised to find Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne on the new and notable shelves at the Britannia Branch of the Vancouver Public Library, shelves containing mostly romances and thrillers.

Skill-testing question: Who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014? Yep, that Patrick Modiano. What language does he write in? French; as the Telegraph discovered, when he was awarded the prize “only a handful of his books had been translated into English and few of them were in print.”

So I think that there were a few strikes weighing against the chance I’d find the translation of Modiano’s 2003 Accident nocturne at my branch library: obscure writer, not writing in English, and not many of his books even available in translation. Further, Paris Nocturne is not considered among his finest work.

I picked up the book. Why? Only because of the cover. It’s lovely and atmospheric. Looking at the cover the small print reminded me that Modiano is a Nobel Prize winner. That’s usually a turnoff for me. Over the years I’d rarely even heard of the authors that have won this prize (2015: Svetlana Alexievich; 2009: Herta Müller; 2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio). And my attempts to become familiar with their work have mostly been frustrating.

Ah, but Paris Nocturne is just 148 loosely-spaced pages, and beautifully printed. Short enough for me to embark on another experiment in Nobel Prize-winning author love.


The Australian Edition

And love it is. A wonderful book, unlike any I’ve read. The translation is fluid and natural. Nocturne plays out partly as mystery, partly as an existential journey, and exceptionally as a love poem to Paris, with its obsessive naming of streets, waterways and buildings.

The outcome: I’m recommending the book to friends and buying two copies as gifts. I’m writing about it here. I’ve ordered two other of Modiano’s novels.

Do libraries help sell books? Do covers help sell books? Do literary prizes help sell books? It seems so. Discussions of what makes books sell tend to be broad and generic. I just wanted to share one personal story.

PS: The translator, Phoebe Weston-Evans, is based in Melbourne, Australia, and the book was simultaneously published there by the widely-respected Text Publishing (Yale University Press for rest-of-world English). The Australian cover appears opposite, beneath the Yale edition. To strikes me as clumsy and amateurish. I’ve asked myself: would I have picked the book off the shelf if that was the cover on display? Hmm. Yes, covers help sell books.


PPS: Here’s the subject metadata for this book, from a range of sources (I’ll be referencing this in a future entry):

Barnes & Noble:

  • Car Accidents — Fiction
  • French People — Fiction


  • Literature & Fiction > World Literature > European > French
  • Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Urban Life


  • Fiction & Literature
  • Literary


  • Fiction & Literature
  • Literary
  • Fiction / Literary
  • Fiction / Urban

New York Public Library:

  • Memory — Fiction
  • Traffic accidents — Fiction
  • Paris (France) — Fiction

Sydney (Australia) City Library:

  • Memory — Fiction
  • Traffic accidents — Fiction

Vancouver Public  Library:

  • French Fiction
  • Paris (France) — Fiction
  • Traffic Accidents — Fiction
  • Missing Persons — Fiction
  • Memory — Fiction


  • Psychological fiction, French
  • Memory — Fiction
  • Traffic accidents — Fiction
  • Fiction / General
  • Memory
  • Traffic accidents

Text Publishing (Australian Edition), Categories:

  • Fiction
  • Translated

Yale University Press, related subjects:

  • Literary Studies > Fiction