In 2018, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will be celebrating the centennial of their independence with a common exhibition stand and a special guest status in one of the biggest events in the European literary and publishing industry – the London Book Fair. This event is expected to draw attention to literature and book publishing in the Baltic states, and could serve as an effective platform for turning literature into a successful exportable good.
How is Latvia preparing for the big event of 2018? Where are we currently lacking the most in order to make Latvian literature recognized abroad? The discussion about these questions was attended by the president of the Latvian Publishers Association, Renāte Punka, the coordinator of literature related projects and manager of "Latvia in the London Book Fair" project, Inga Bodnarjuka-Mrazauskas, the member of the board of the International Writers' and Translators' House, Andra Konste, the senior interdisciplinary officer for the Sectoral policies department of the Ministry of Culture of Latvia, Līga Buševica, and chairman of the Latvian Writers' Union, Arno Jundze. The discussion was moderated by the writer Osvalds Zebris.
Who currently is pursuing and is responsible for exporting Latvian literature?
Three organizations have undertaken this task – the Latvian Writers' Union, the Latvian Publishers' Association (LPA), and the International Writers' and Translators' House. In this huge work of promoting the export of Latvian literature, each of these entities plays its concrete role. The Writers' Union works towards translating and publishing Latvian literature abroad. The Writers' House is responsible for promoting Latvian literature in foreign markets and organizing our participation in the London Book Fair, since in 2018 we are going to be one of the market focus countries along with Lithuania and Estonia. It is a unique opportunity for Latvian literary, publishing and printing industries. The Publishers' Association takes care of Latvia's participation in other significant book fairs, such as Frankfurt, Leipzig and Bologna, and is developing informative publications on Latvian history and culture in English. Cooperation between these three organizations has proven throughout the last year to be a sustainable and effective model.
This is a good method of cooperation tested all around the world, allowing the balance of different interests and needs in the fields of literature and book publishing. We must ensure both the translation of literary works and their popularization abroad, establish ties with foreign publishers, and encourage their interest about what is created in Latvia.
The three organization model allows us to act as correctly and purposefully as possible. Had it been a single institution led by a few people, they could be tempted greatly to take the path of the least resistance, that is, make decisions without wider considerations. We are allowed to take unpopular decisions since jointly we can have a greater influence. We have formed a Memorandum Council that unites and oversees all three organizations and works as our main discussion platform. There are many issues we lock horns about and sometimes it seems it would be easier to fix a problem on your own, but the exchanging of opinions encourages more balanced solutions.
Is Latvian literature an exportable product?
We have so much to export, but we are still facing the "packaging" problem that is very important these days. We are yet to learn how to present ourselves, how to sell better. Literature must be pushed into the market just like any other product, and once we learn that, it will be easier to trade on the global scale. I think it is possible to talk about our success stories – we have met and started a dialogue with smaller foreign publishing houses, nonetheless we must go further and seek bigger companies, our goals ought to be set high. I would wish for our own attitudes towards the writer's profession to change. Writers must be appreciated, but unfortunately, when I read comments online, I see they are perceived as spongers with nothing to do but to tear away pieces off the nation's vital body.
The role of literature and publishing is rather under-appreciated by the people of Latvia. In countries like Sweden or Norway, nobody would object to the necessity to translate the works of their authors. The need for translations seems self-evident.
When we are talking about popular attitudes, I think we should take into account that a book is like a silent phenomena when compared to other cultural processes. A concert, a play or an exhibition are all more audible, somehow more splendid events that speak for themselves. A book is to be approached slightly differently, by investing more time and energy.
All in all, we are now at a unique point of the whole process of exporting literature, we are at the very beginning of it. Translations are being created, successful partnerships with Latvian publishers have been established , literary agents are involved in creating networks with publishers abroad. For the first time, foreign publishers have organized visits to Latvia. The groundwork has been laid and it is bound to yield fruit.
How large is the funding to be invested into the promotion and export of Latvian literature?
I can speak of the participation in the London Book Fair, which is undoubtedly the biggest and the most resource-intensive project in the Latvian publishing industry for the last decade, as well as tell you about our involvement in other target markets. Representation in various book fairs abroad, preparation for the London book fair and development of the cultural and professional book industry programme for 2018, translation and publishing abroad, translation residencies and workshops, visits of foreign publishers and journalists to Latvia, creation of a data base, advertising and other activities have been assigned two million Euros. This is the entire funding for a three-year period. Before the London Fair project was announced, funding that would be particularly directed at establishing export of literature did not exist at all. In fact, we are now filling a gap with regards to translation of Latvian literature that was created over a long period. There have been particular programmes, fragmented initiatives, however, this work has not yet been done steadfastly and comprehensively.
As a matter of perspective, – in London, we met up with Koen Van Bockstal, director of the Flemish literature Fund (FLF), and discussed translation and promotion of literature. The institution led by him has an annual budget of nearly 12 million Euros, dedicated solely to the exporting and promotion of Flemish literature. But the time devoted to this process is even more valuable than the funding. I am talking about years and years of growing experience and networks, all in order to excite the world's curiosity about the literature of this comparatively small language and its people. This cannot be achieved within a couple of years.
Exporting of literature is a process consisting of various aspects. For instance, we critically lack translators who translate from Latvian into other languages. We are catastrophically short in capacity in order to timely produce high quality translations for all of the works of Latvian literature we would like to offer to the world. We have not worked on it so far, therefore we must find a way to make translators from the world's bigger languages fall in love with Latvian.
At the moment we are still like a cat in a bag, the world hasn't learned about us yet. And it is a tragedy for Latvia in general, since we have the opportunity to encounter other nations, cities and cultures through their literature. When a book by a Latvian author travels to a book store abroad, it becomes our ambassador. Literature is a brilliant way to shape national image, a reality many countries have realized, and frame the issue accordingly. Off course, it is also a business opportunity, should an author and his/her publisher be lucky.
I could share an inspiring example – every month, several dozens of tourists from the Netherlands and France include Jānis Roze book store in their tour schedule because of a story about the publisher Jānis Roze included in Jan Brokken's novel
"Baltische zielen" (Baltic Souls), and for many this text has served as an impulse to visit Latvia. This has been achieved through a book, in this case a Dutch writer has been involved in creating the image of our land. However, we should be doing this ourselves, so that novels like "Mātes piens" (Mothers' Milk) or "Svina garša" (The Taste of Lead) create the urge to come to Latvia.
What is the most important goal of our participation in the London Book Fair?
The most important thing – it is our first chance to think about the literary and publishing industry comprehensively, and consider long-term goals. You could say that the funding assigned for the London Book Fair allows us to begin to tackle problems that we have never before attempted to solve, for instance, the lack of translators. One of the temporary solutions is using English as a "bridge" for translating into other languages. We have started building networks with publishers – a task to be continued for years to come. Therefore, I don't see London as a duty to just translate and present a definite number of books, given that this is, of course, important and is taken up, but rather as a beginning of a long process continuing into 2019 and onwards. Our goal is to create a stable basis for promoting Latvian literature abroad, or like Arno put it – to let the cat out of the bag.
Yes, London is definitely not a one-time project, but a long-term investment into the exportability in the field. We will do whatever we possibly can with our team of translators in order to ensure that the English translations serve as a "bridge" to other languages. Moreover, books translated during this period into English will be able to compete for international recognition which is fairly important in the context of exportability.
Literature is one of the most complicated and time-consuming products of culture to export, demanding immense creative resource, such as the work of translators and editors, as well as the determination to find foreign publishers that deal with literature of concrete genres. This means frequently attending international book fairs that are the main platform facilitating collaboration with publishers abroad. It is important to reach a point where Latvian literature is published in foreign publishing houses, since this is practically the only chance to market and promote a book to the target audiences of certain countries. Hence, we invest a large part of our resources, allocated to the participation in the London Book Fair, into building relationships with British publishers – we organize visits to Latvia, as well as intensively involve literary agents and Latvian publishers in working with UK publishing companies. The results are not instant, but I believe the efforts will pay off in the nearest future.
One could say that preparing for the London Fair has finally opened the doors for literary agents to emerge as middlemen between the author, his/her publisher and foreign publishing houses. Currently we have three agents working for us, and they are actively obtaining the skills necessary in selling copyrights. This is a significant achievement, for Latvian publishers rarely can afford to spend their resources on selling intellectual property abroad. This process differs entirely from buying of publishing rights. A few years ago I attended a seminar led by one of the most experienced Swedish literary agents – she confirmed that before the success story of the famous Swedish detective novels they also went through 30 years of knocking on countless locked doors, explaining: "hey, we have writers here in Sweden, too". We should recognize that we are at the very beginning of this process.
We must also note that writers have to come to accept that the conditions have changed in the world. A writer is a part of the book's journey to its readers, especially to its readers abroad. Charismatic personality can go a long way.
Indeed, foreign publishers today expect the writer to be keen to perform, to be proactive and catch the public's attention. My dream is to fill an entire airplane with Latvian writers and take them to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and let them see how books travel to the readers nowadays. It is an essential part of author's workday.
Authors must themselves be eager to get their works into the hands of foreign readers, they must be actively involved in this process. Because in this market everything relies on contacts, often exchanged as if by chance, but impossible if the author is not open to communication.
True! As a publisher who regularly purchases publishing rights I can attest to the fact that mutual acquaintances, long-term commitments to foreign publishers and agents are some of the most important preconditions for a book to get published.
Comment from the Minister of Culture Dace Melbārde:
"Literature is crucial in shaping any country's image. Ensuring that the works of our writers reach readers abroad will give us an opportunity to tell our story about Latvia. Whereas, readers in other countries will get a chance to look at the world from a unique, geographically, historically, intellectually and emotionally Latvian perspective."
In the last few years, Latvian book and publishing industries have seen a pleasing trend – original literature of our own authors, especially historical and documentary prose, is both the most best selling in our book store chains, and the most widely read in the libraries. It indicates an increase in the level of professionalism in writing, and ability to address a wide readership in Latvia. This statistic encourages and gives reason to hope that these works could bring just as much joy to readers elsewhere in the world.
Latvia's participation in the London Book Fair in 2018 is very significant also in the more general context of the Baltic region. Our status as special guests in this event is a wonderful present for our centennial and a brand new opportunity for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to collaborate in the fields of literature and publishing. It is an equally great opportunity for the works of our authors to be translated into English and gain recognition within the international market."
Discussion was organized specially for the internet portal DELFI