Franzen Takes the Stage; Amazon's Luxembourg Tax Haven Is Under Siege

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Today in books and publishing: Reviews are in on Franzen-adapting play; closing Amazon's tax loopholes; only Harry Potter can save Bloomsbury now; telling designers what to read.

Franzen takes the stage. That play we told you about in August—the one based on Jonathan Frazen's essay "House for Sale" about selling his deceased mother's home—opened last night, and the reviews are especially mixed. The New York Times' Charles Isherwood lands the first blow, tarring director Daniel Fish's with adjectives like "pointless and pleasureless," "weightless, gimmicky," and "numbingly untheatrical." But Capital New York's Jason Diamond swings back, summoning adjectives like "unexpected, exciting, and haunting" to defend the experimental production. AP's Jennifer Farrar steps in to moderate, writing, "Aside from the annoying opening scene ... the rest of the comedy moves along at a sprightly pace." Whether it's good, bad, or meh, it definitely sounds like an Off Off Broadway production. Fish is known for adapting contemporary essays, previously putting David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again" on stage. In House for Sale, Fish has his actors recite Franzen's essay in full, verbatim, cold-calling on them randomly in each performance. As Diamond explains in his review: 

Each is cued to read with special sets of lights that, when particular colored bulbs are illuminated, direct specific actors to read a section of the text. But, the playbill explains, the cues aren’t planned in advance; they are determined live so none of the actors know quite when they will be called on.

While the actors tremble in fear of forgetting Franzen's lines, clips of Bonnie and Clyde interject, old Peanuts specials flicker on a supine TV, a church organ drones, and characters break out into songs about "the sexual tension Franzen feels exists between him and a real estate agent who 'was wearing excellent jeans.'" Consider yourself warned. [Capital New York]

Amazon might have to start paying European taxes soon. Amazon has recently been saddling European publishers with the U.K.'s 20 percent value added tax on all e-books, even though it only pays a mere fraction of that tax itself. The publishing world cried foul, noting that Amazon only pays three percent VAT, since it operates out of the cushy tax haven of Luxembourg. Now, Amazon will have to find another way to squeeze publishers for more tax money than they need, because the European Commission has ordered Luxembourg to end its VAT loophole. The commission is in charge of EU tax law, so there's real force behind their order to Luxembourg to raise its VAT on digital services to 15 percent within 30 days. The effect on e-book prices in Europe won't be felt immediately, though, since Amazon is predicted to contest the order. [The Guardian]

Recommended Reading

Bloomsbury needs Harry Potter's magic to get back into the black. Profits have been weak for Bloomsbury Publishing in the first half of this fiscal year, according to Reuters. Their children's and educational books have underperformed, especially now that the windfall profits from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are finally drying up. But the folks at Bloomsbury have come up with a brilliant new plan to increase their revenue: more Harry Potter. Sources told Reuters that the books on their second-half list, including the supplemental Potter-related books in the Hogwarts Library Box Set, will balance the publisher's books. Hugh's Three Good Things by British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall should also help boost profits. [Reuters]

Design nerds need to know what to read. And Steven Kroeter is happy to offer them book recommendations. Not his own, but those from luminaries in the design world. Kroeter is the man behind Designers & Books, a popular website that hosts lists of the favorite titles of star designers like Maira Kalman, Shigeru Ban, and Christian Lacroix. "On the one hand you can go to TED and spend four days and whatever that costs," Kroeter told The New York Times' Rima Suqi. Or you can skip all that hoopla, and "get a book list from people you really respect and read." But Kroeter apparently thinks TED-type IRL gatherings have some merit, because he's launching the first Designers & Books Fair this weekend in New York. "I hope this is going to be a weekend-long celebration for design, designers, books, ideas and the people that love all that stuff." And despite what all the publishing industry's pundits are saying, designers think physical and digital books both have their merits, according to Kroeter: "Our definition of a book is certainly paper, but also pixels. They like to walk to the shelf and pull it off and flip through it, but at the same time they also like technology." [The New York Times]

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.