Three Hot Books You Can’t Download

What do Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, and Ted Kennedy have in common? (You know, other than the fact that they’re all dead and each has generated his or her share of controversy.) They all have new books, just published or forthcoming, that won’t be downloadable any time soon.

What do Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, and Ted Kennedy have in common? (You know, other than the fact that they’re all dead and each has generated his or her share of controversy.) They all have new books, just published or forthcoming, that won’t be downloadable any time soon.


E-books are a small but growing part of the publishing business. Wholesale revenues for U.S. publishers have steadily increased every quarter for the past seven years, reaching nearly $40 million at the end of June 2009, according to the International Digital Publishing Forum.

But traditional publishing is a business that’s often reactive, according to one industry insider, even with titles that are sure to stir up sales. For now, Kennedy’s, Kahlo’s, and Nabokov’s publishers are digging in their heels and sticking to their old-school page-turning guns. So they’ll hold off digital distribution, despite the rising popularity and profitability of e-books (and Jeff Bezos’ aggressive vision, “to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds on Kindle.”)

Finding Frida Kahlo by Barbara Levine

Frida Frenzy

There are no plans to publish an e-book of Finding Frida Kahlo, a 256-page hardcover lavishly illustrated with a recently discovered cache of drawings, journal entries, clothes, and more. The book has drawn “strong opinions on both sides” over the authenticity of the objects, says Katharine Myers, director of publicity and marketing for Princeton Architectural Press, which published the book.

The personal effects of the Mexican surrealist are pitting academics and curators against each other. Hilda Trujillo Soto, adjunct director at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, thinks “The title and the text trick people who buy the book in good faith thinking that it’s about Frida,” according to the Times. “The publisher is taking a cynical attitude. They are disseminating Frida Kahlo fakes,” she adds.

Not everyone is in a huff. Paula Frosch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote for Library Journal that the book’s author, Barbara Levine, “is particularly sensitive to the fragments of life one accumulates and how they can be interpreted by others. In a very personal essay, the author charts revelations about this enigmatic artist yielded by the diary entries, recipes, sketches, and letters and a starkly annotated series of images of the techniques used for the amputation of her leg.” She does not allude to the possibility that they didn’t belong to Kahlo.


Whether the stuffed hummingbirds and signatures are real or fake, for Princeton Architectural Press it’s a fairly straightforward decision not to offer a digital edition. “Ninety-five percent of our titles are not appropriate for [e-reading devices] as they are image-heavy and tend to have a lot of color,” explains Myers. “You just can’t get the full experience digitally,” she offers, adding, “We are eagerly awaiting the color version of Kindle.”

True Compass by Ted Kennedy

Touting Tradition for Teddy

Jonathan Karp, publisher and editor-in-chief of TWELVE, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group, has been vocal about his efforts to keep True Compass, Kennedy’s memoir, in traditional book format, at least for a while.  

In an email interview with Fast Company, he stuck close to the story he offered to the Associated Press. “It was always our intention to publish the hardcover edition of True Compass first. We worked hard to produce an elegant hardcover edition of True Compass, with more than 100 pages of photos, including original artwork by Senator Kennedy.” Some of the photographs are full-color and the pages have deckle-edging, which, for the uninitiated, produces that lovely uneven ripple.

Karp also noted that TWELVE’s business plan preceded the advent of ebooks. “Our philosophy as an imprint is to publish each book individually. The e-book edition of another of our recent titles, Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, has been a consistent bestseller on Amazon. So there’s no dogmatic policy here.”

Weighing in at two-pounds for its 532 pages, Kennedy’s book is a certifiable tome. For heft alone, wouldn’t the book benefit from a digital format, especially because some of the senator’s fans may be of an age where it’s increasingly uncomfortable to hold big books for extended periods of time? Karp says, “We will make the e-book available eventually, but for this particular title, the hardcover ought to be the first format.”

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s Odd Narrative

It was never meant to see the light of day. Vladimir Nabokov’s last novel, known as The Original of Laura, was handwritten on 138 index cards. Nabokov had instructed his wife to destroy it at his death because it was incomplete, but alas, sentiment prevented her from following his wishes. The cards passed to Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, when his mother died, leaving him with the same dilemma: share dad’s final stroke of literary might with the rest of the world, or put it in the fire.

NPR reports that after a 30-year struggle, Dmitri Nabokov decided to share. “I came to the very clear conclusion,” Nabokov says, “imagining my father, with a wry smile, in a calmer and happier moment, saying, ‘Well you’re in a real mess here–go ahead and publish. Have some fun.'”

Knopf is bringing the book out in November, but since no one could agree on the order of the narrative (Nabokov left no instructions, nor did he number the cards), associate art director and design heavyweight Chip Kidd engineered a compromise. The book will have perforated facsimile reproductions of the cards that can be punched out and shuffled as the reader wishes.  

Though Lolita has been kindling for more than one group of fanatic book-banning activists, you won’t find her, or Laura, in a digital version any time soon. For Lolita, it may be a question of who owns the electronic rights. For The Original of Laura, Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, says there are no plans to publish an e-book because it would detract from the unique design. “The design is integral to the book. As a publisher, we wanted to be as faithful as possible to the original.”  

Bogaards cites special production elements, such as heavier weight paper, the jacket, and the quality of the binding–all adding up to a total experience for the reader. “When people see the book, and hold it, they’ll understand,” he underscores.



Postponing Palin

Former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, penned a memoir that hit the bestseller list even before it hit the stores.  Going Rogue, scheduled for publication in November, is at the top of the charts at both Barnes & Noble and Amazon, according to the Associated Press.  But once again, the publisher has decided to wait before releasing a digital edition.  E-readers won’t have to wait long, the Wall Street Journal reported that HarperCollins, Palin’s publisher, will offer the e-book on December 26.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.