London Diary
Jean Richardson -- 12/20/99

American Wins 'Guardian' Prize

Feeling that its fiction prize was being overshadowed by the more prestigious Booker and Whitbread Awards, the Guardian newspaper decided to relaunch it. With the aim of encouraging new talent, the award has been transformed into the U.K.'s major prize for a First Book, either fiction or nonfiction. The shortlist of six titles, three of which are novels, was chosen jointly by reading groups run by Borders bookshops in London, Brighton, Leeds and Glasgow and by a panel of bestselling writers. The first winner of the £10,000 prize is New York journalist Philip Gourevitch for We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (Picador/FSG), a horrifying account of the Rwandan massacre in which nearly a million people were killed. Gourevitch said that it was a story he felt compelled to tell and that writing it produced "a kind of urgency not just to tell it, but to tell it as clearly as possible."

Ottakers in Trouble

Confirmation of the fear that books are not moving out of the shops fast enough comes from a 4% drop in sales announced by the regional book chain Ottakers. Finance director Neil Lloyd said that so far "Christmas just d sn't seem to be happening" and blamed the fall on heavy discounting by online bookstores. But overambitious expansion plans could also be a reason. Ottakers, which owns 72 stores and had planned to open a further 10 next year, built up the chain through a policy of cheap sites in small towns. Fears that the final dividend might be scrapped sent the shares tumbling by nearly 40%, making Ottakers a possible target for a takeover, with rumors that Barnes & Noble may be interested.

New Look for Famous Store

One of the best-known names in academic bookselling has vanished with the reopening of Dillons Gower Street as a Waterstone's store. Founded by Una Dillon in 1936 in Bloomsbury, a neighborhood famous for its literary residents, the store was the official bookshop of nearby London University, which became sole owners in 1963, but sold out to the Pentos group in 1979. It was later acquired by the HMV Media Group, owners of the Waterstone chain. Tim Waterstone admitted to PW that he had some regrets about the name change, but added he is convinced that it was essential to establish it as the flagship of Waterstone's academic bookstores. Gower Street has more than 250,000 titles in stock--about one million books on five floors--and it is now the largest academic bookstore in Europe, with an unrivaled stock of medical books. The change of name has been accompanied by a £1-million facelift designed to create a modern environment, with a new basement cafe and a cyberstation that offers customers courses on the Net. Una Dillon has not been forgotten, either. Three Una Dillon scholarships for postgraduate students have been set up at the Institute of English Studies. Rumor has it that Tim Waterstone would like to buy back the chain that bears his name, as he isn't too happy with online bookselling or the more down-market image of some of the shops.

Other Worlds

Translating is one of the most difficult and least acknowledged skills, and publicizing foreign authors is notoriously difficult. One recent success story was Ten Years On, an imaginative program of readings, discussions and films to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, featuring the work of Czech, Polish, Hungarian and Austrian writers. Vivienne Menkes-Ivry, who dreamed up the event, is now working on a guide to Central European fiction in translation in the Babel Guides series, available in the U.S. and Canada from Paul & Co. Publishers Consortium Inc. Each guide reviews around 100 novels or short story collections, with a long quote as a taster and a list of all books translated since 1948. So far, the guides cover Italy, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Portugal and Brazil. Series founder Ray Keenoy, an enthusiastic supporter of minority cultures, told PW: "They show us a way to preserve local culture in the face of world cultural homogenization." Talk to him on

What's Selling

Harry Potter's adventures continue to feature as hard- and paperback bestsellers. Now a serious contender for the Whitbread Prize, it seems nothing can stop the boy. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding (Picador) finds the heroine in a Thai jail as well as at the top of the hardback bestsellers, ahead of Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years by Sue Townsend (M. Joseph), another example of very British humor. Nonfiction leaders include Managing My Life by football boss Alex Ferguson, another Hodder success story, and Walking with Dinosaurs by Tim Haines, in conjunction with the recent BBC series. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (Flamington) has spent more than 130 weeks in the top 10 paperbacks.