Unraveling the Mysteries of Nordic Publishing in Göteborg

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

• The Göteborg Book Fair, Scandinavia’s largest book event, starts this Friday, with Africa as the featured region, with more than 70 writers from the continent attending.

• Scandinavian writers are hot all over the world and the fair’s timing just prior to Frankfurt offers a preview what’s likely to be featured from the Nordic countries at the big show.

By Kelvin Smith

Göteborg, the historic trading city in the south of Sweden and the largest port in Scandinavia, is a fitting location for the Nordic region’s biggest book fair — Bok & Bibliotek -– that runs for four days from 23rd to September 26th. This is a book fair that writers love, and it’s easy to see why. Look at the seminar programme and you can see that writing and writers are taken seriously and the event is much more than just another stop on the global promotion tour.

Like ports anywhere, Göteborg welcomes strangers and this year the fair plays host to more than African 70 writers, publishers and other intellectuals from 25 African countries with a focal theme of “Africa and African literature.” So Sweden is a great place this September if you want to immerse yourself in African writing with a host of African literary stars including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mia Couto, Nuruddin Farah, Nadine Gordimer, Helon Habila, Chenjerai Hove and Petina Gappah. Henning Mankel is one of those who welcome the African theme “as long as it offers what it should: a contradictory, bustling picture of not one Africa but a thousand. Then we will learn what we do not know. Not just about Africa, but also about ourselves”.

Beyond Nordic Noir

But many visitors don’t come to Sweden looking for Africa; they come to explore the world of Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and to trace the steps of girls with dragon tattoos. Göteborg is the home of Sweden’s youngest Chief Inspector, Erik Winter, the protagonist of Åke Edwardson’s successful crime novels, just one example of how Scandinavian writers have changed the world market for crime fiction in recent years. There is no doubt that Scandinavian crime writers are hot –- and Stieg Larsson’s work has made a fortune for publishers all over the world

But is this making the rest of us blinkered to what else is on offer? In the latest issue of Swedish Book Review (all about crime fiction) Paul Berf points to one of the drawbacks of Nordic noir. Readers, he says of the German market, “are apt to seek out only Swedish crime novels, and too rarely take the next step into exploring other sorts of Swedish books”.

One of the major features of the book fair is the International Rights Centre, and according to Eirin Hagen of Norway’s Hagen Agency, many publishers choose this event to tie up Scandinavian deals before Frankfurt. This is where you may find publishers and agents discussing “other sorts” of books from the region.

One tool non-Nordic publishers use to judge quality is the Nordic Council Literature Prize. In the UK Atlantic have already published the 2010 winner, Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, and Harvill Secker published the 2009 winner, Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time. Previous winners like Dane Naja Marie Aidt (2008: Bavian), Swede Sara Stridsberg (2007: Drömfakulteten, now translated into French, German and Dutch), and Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi (2006: Oceanen) may not yet have achieved the same financial success as Mankell or Larsson but they are being read and published outside their own countries. Prizes are important in bringing writers to new audiences and this is well understood by the Nordic Council.

Public is Welcome

The public is a vital part of the book fair’s raison d’être. Lots of books are sold at the fair and the event gets lots of media coverage. But in spite of its international outlook, this is still quite a local event. Of the nearly 100,000 visitors in 2009, only 3% or the trade visitors came from outside Sweden, and the members of the public came predominantly (71%) from the Göteborg and the immediately surrounding area.

It is significant that the Swedish name for the fair is Bok & Bibliotek (Book and Library): the first Göteborg Fair in 1985 was just for librarians, and libraries continue to be valued and supported as a central part of cultural policy in Sweden and throughout the Nordic region. Government cultural policy in Sweden and the rest of the Nordic region puts weight behind the need and right of the public to good quality reading materials. In Norway the famous innkjøpsordinger mean that publishers can depend on a minimum sale (from 500 to 1,550 copies) of many new Norwegian books to the library service, and publishers and authors throughout the region benefit from similar support.

Children’s characters like Pippi Longstocking and Moomintroll are well known throughout the world, and the Nordic region continues to be the home of innovative books for children. New Swedish Books for Young Readers from Swedish Arts Council (Kulturrådet) gives a picture of what’s available for translation and co-edition, and the Swedish Arts Council has a translation support scheme that is worth exploring, as do all of the countries in the region.

The Danish media giant Egmont is best known outside Scandinavia as a publisher for children and young adults, and there are many other smaller children’s publishers in the region. There will be loads of children’s writers and illustrators at the fair and this year the Belgian illustrator, Kitty Crowther, will be awarded the 2010 ALMA (Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award) Prize. African children’s writers will also be around, including Elieshi Lema and Véronique Tadjo.

Birgitta Jacobsson Ekblom, Public Relations Manager, is keen to point out that you can find lots on the internet (discussions about books, seminars, cultural events during the year) even if you cannot get to the fair -– go to http://www.bokmassan.se/community. There are nearly 5,000 Facebook members and of course there is Twitter. During the book fair there will be two screens at the main entrance with all tweets about the Book Fair passing through, and probably a screen with statistics, number of tweets, and number of users.

Swedish publishers have rallied around imprisoned author Dawit Isaak

The fair has a reputation as a place for discussion of contemporary issues and this year is no exception with major events to focus on the environment and freedom of speech. Ralph Nader will be there, invited by Kraft och Kultur, and on Friday 24th of September he’ll talk about consumer rights, environmental issues and the current world political climate. Also ten publishing houses in Sweden have come together in a show of solidarity to publish Swedish translations of writings by Dawit Isaak, the Swedish-Eritrean journalist who has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001. The book, Hope – the Tale of Moses’ and Manna’s Love & Other Texts (Hopp – berättelsen om Moses och Mannas kärlek & andra texter) will be launched at the fair. The last time something of this scale happened in Europe was when German publishers got together to publish Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

People in Göteborg look across the seas, and they are interested in the outside world. They want to exchange ideas and trade with people in all continents. Last time I was in Göteborg, I bought some wild kantarellen mushrooms outside Saluhallen market hall on the way to the book fair. “And what port do you come from?” the stallholder asked. It made sense that I was born in Liverpool.

This book fair goes from strength to strength because it includes all parts of the book world from writers to readers, publishers and booksellers, librarians and teachers in what the catalog proudly calls “four days of controlled chaos.” In 2011 Germanic literature is the focus, and Germany, Austria and Switzerland are working together on the theme. Let’s hope they can take this task on with such a joyfully anarchic spirit –- but Africa may be a hard act to follow!

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.