Dutch Scramble For Picketty

There’s just been an interesting entry on the nrc.nl>boeken blog which the leading Dutch quality newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, maintains over the subject of books.

Yes, this has to do with the French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century – not broadly noticed in his native France, but a run-away best-seller in the US and the UK, which is said to break new ground in the economic treatment of the causes of, and remedies to, societal inequality.

Especially in today’s book market, there’s nothing that excites publishers so much as what seems to be a sure-fire hit, certain money in the bank, so that NRC reporters Hanneke Chin-A-Fo and Toef Jaeger can write here about the unseemly scramble that broke out among Dutch-language publishing houses to gain exclusive rights to this work.

In the first round of bids to the French publisher Editions du Seuil the bidding went up to €40,000, an especially high amount for a non-fiction work. Yesterday the second round closed.

It turns out we have a winner! In an update to the post, the journalists reveal that the fairly prominent Amsterdam publishing house De Bezige Bij (yes, the name means “The Busy Bee”) has crowed in a tweet that it has gained the prize, although the winning price was not disclosed (only 140 characters, you know). They promise the Dutch version for January.

According to Chin-A-Fo and Jaeger there were further reasons to go hard for this work, in that not only is it likely to be assigned to be bought en masse by students in higher education, but it also promises to be a significant “prestige project” and so likely in the future to attract other star economists to want to publish in Dutch there.

Well, to the extent economists – or any other foreign non-fiction writer – want to publish in Dutch in the first place. In my view, for all the buzz that De Bezige Bij discerned around this book, I strongly suspect that they will soon be suffering from some buyer’s remorse. I mean, January 2015: Surely the sensation around this work will have died out by then!

In any case, the sort of educated Dutch (and Flemish) economists, and sundry other intellectuals, truly interested in reading this are certainly able, in the vast majority of cases, to read it just as well in the English version that is already out. (Which is said to currently be hard to get ahold of, admittedly – but surely way before January! Indeed, I’d venture that quite a few of these people could also read Piketty quite comfortably in the original French.)

Then there is also the evidence that led some observers to opine that people are mostly buying Piketty to display on their shelves rather than actually to read him. (Yes, he has a very readable style, peppered with references to popular literature and the like; but the book is also some 700 pages long.) Dutch readers probably are subject to the same temptation – but then surely that grandstanding function can be better fulfilled with the English version or, again, even better, the French!

In any case, the funny thing is that Dutch publishers had the chance to buy the rights way back last September, when the original French version came out. Cheeeeeeeeeeeep! No inequality on show there: they all passed.

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