Foreign Rights Acquisitions Put Turkish Book Market on the Map

In Guest Contributors & Editorial by Guest Contributor

By Nermin Mollaoğlu

• In the wake of Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel and Turkey’s appearance as Guest of Honour at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, Turkish publishers have recently taken a greater interest in foreign rights and in expanding their international presence.

• 50% of books published in Turkey are translations, and agencies like Kalem are now a bigger part of the publishing landscape.

• The new Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival, held in Istanbul, brings in 50 authors from 30 different countries, and will be held this year from Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2010.

In some parts of the world, being a literary agent involves not only the art of dealing but also the art of healing! My company, the Kalem Agency, is celebrating its 300th foreign rights sale contract this week: the Bertelsmann imprint Random House–Manesse will be publishing the great Turkish short story writer Sait Faik in German with an epilogue by Orhan Pamuk in 2012. Even though there are not many qualified translators or foreign editors who take the risk of publishing a Turkish author in translation, we have managed to reach this number of contracts in only four years.

In 2002, I was a teacher at a private school, when a friend of mine told me that YKY (Yap Kredi Publishing, one of the biggest publishers in the Turkish market) was looking for someone to handle their foreign rights contracts. At the time, I had no background in copyright or contracts. However I had been spending all my evenings reading the great books that YKY publishes. On getting the job, I became the first person hired specifically as a international rights director in Turkey. Before that, publishers did not hire someone to work specifically on copyright: usually, the owners themselves dealt with that, or turned the job over to whichever colleague spoke a foreign language. Today, there are at least five publishers in Turkey who employ an in-house foreign rights manager.

I worked at YKY for three years, and felt very lucky to start publishing at such a great house. I learned a lot there, but in June 2005 I decided to move on since Turkey had been begun attracting more attention from foreign editors. At the time, publishing colleagues were talking about the possibility of Turkey being the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Moreover Orhan Pamuk received the Peace Award in Germany and it was widely assumed that he would soon receive the Nobel Prize.

It was a huge opportunity for Turkish literature, and the right time for me to start my own literary agency. I knew it would be difficult to find international publishers who would be interested in Turkish literature; I realized I wouldn’t be earning enough to buy myself a Hermès bag each season! At the same time, many American and European publishers were looking for a subagent in Turkey. And now, more than 200 new titles are licensed through us to Turkish houses each year. They are mainly adult fiction and children’s titles; we also license suitable nonfiction. We try to know what our clients want to publish in the coming years and learn about their backlists, then choose the best suitable titles for them among or foreign partners. It is great to sell a book to the ten big publishers here, but we care about mid-size and even the tiny but reliable publishers, too.

In Turkey, a few years ago being an agent was not such a prestigious job. Editors used to think that there was no need for agents. Now things have changed somewhat, and there is a greater realization that agencies are one of the keystones of the publishing business, as they are in England and the US. Maybe one of the most important signs that things are changing is that I was invited to have dinner with President Abdullah Gül a few months ago — I can tell editors now that even the president is familiar with literary agents!

Some general facts about publishing in Turkey may help put things in perspective about the book publishing market here:

  • The country has an 85% literacy rate, and a young population: the median age is 28, with 17 million students.
  • 5,800 new titles are published each year here, 50% of which are translations.
  • Books have a low price point, around 10 Turkish lira (US$7), mostly because they are paperbacks. (Please don’t ask about hardcovers—there are hardly any.)
  • The children’s book market has grown quickly, as have graphic novels in the last few years.
  • Chick-lit books are still a new category in the Turkish market, and are on the rise — they have become so popular that some highbrow literary novels these days are being packaged as chick-lit.
  • Another fast-growing category here is historical fiction: Mehmet Coral and Solmaz Kamuran are two good names to mention. Solmaz Kamuran, for example, has a substantial international following, and has been published in more than 15 languages already.
  • Of course, as in many other countries, Stieg Larsson and Stephanie Meyer are the current ruling king and the queen of Turkish bookstores.

How do we work at Kalem? Our philosophy is to provide an individual approach to each author as well as to find them the right publisher both at home and abroad, while developing original marketing and promotional strategies for each title. We travel a lot, too: in four years we have been to 34 different book fairs and literary festivals all around the world, from chatting with colleagues at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair to swimming in the Dead Sea during the Jerusalem Book Fair. Kalem Agency represents the lists of American, English, German, Spanish houses, not only in Turkey but also in the Balkan countries, with their expanding markets. We expect to open offices in some of those countries by the end of the year. We have also begun organizing workshops for translators. Last year, for example, there was only one book published in Turkish translation from Romanian. In cooperation with the Romanian Cultural Center, we put together a two-day workshop: by the end of 2009 there will be five new Romanian authors in Turkish.

Lastly, I should mention one of our most important undertakings: we organize an international literature festival — the first of its kind in Turkey. We call it ITEF — Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962) is one of Turkey’s major twentieth-century novelists who was an inspiration for many of the country’s current authors, including Orhan Pamuk. Kalem Agency represents Tanp nar’s estate, and Penguin Classics will publish his novel Time Regulation Institute in English in 2011. Each year, we invite more than 50 authors from 30 different countries, and organize events at a number of venues around Istanbul. We ask invited authors to contribute a piece of their work, all of which are then translated from their own language and published as a special edition, which is then given away to bookstore customers who make a minimum purchase at their local store during the festival week. The main goal is to motivate people to go to the bookshops, and to get the attention of foreign editors and media. With the Tanpinar Festival (which will be held this year from Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2010) we hope to make Istanbul a meeting point for rights deals in the next few years.

Next month, to celebrate our 300th rights deal, I will go to London to (finally!) buy my first Hermès, and then attend the Edinburgh Literature Festival. If you want to see my bag and hopefully what it has inside, please let me know!

Nermin Mollaoğlu was born in Bulgaria and moved to Istanbul at age 3. She is the owner of the Kalem Agency, and the founder of the Istanbul Tanp nar Literature Festival—the city’s first major literary festival, now in its second year. She is currently in the Business Law M.A. program at Istanbul Bilgi University.

DISCUSS: Can Literature Festivals Change a Nation’s Reading Habits?

VISIT: Kalem Literary Agency

DISCOVER: More information about the ITEF Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival

CONTACT: Nermin Mollaoğlu directly

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