Coronavirus Worklife: Iran’s Blue Circle Literary Agency

In News by Porter Anderson

The pandemic has had a tangible impact on a new literary agency in Tehran, Blue Circle. One of its staffers contracted the virus as lockdown restrictions were being eased.

The offices of the Blue Circle Agency in Tehran are above a café’s courtyard. Image: BCA

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘COVID-19 Isn’t a Joke’
Our earliest Coronavirus Worklife articles here at Publishing Perspectives focused on the scramble for publishing’s office workers in so many parts of the world to grab their laptops and flee. The world’s book business quickly joined so many sister industries in trying to keep things going by working from home.

Today, it’s evident that another thing we share across our far-flung markets is that odd sensation of looking back at a story still unfolding. And Iran is a particularly eloquent example of this.

Set in the Iranian capital, Blue Circle Agency is a very young shop, founded just last year to represent “many of the major Iranian publishers, authors, and illustrators, and to work with leading publishers and agencies both in our region and the rest of the world, including the Far East, Europe, and South America.”

It’s also a company that’s had a COVID-19 infection in its midst and has labored to keep things on track through extensive lockdown sequences in an effort to mitigate one of the world’s most volatile outbreaks.

Iran is placed by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center at No. 10 in the world for caseloads. The 5:34 a.m. ET update (0934 GMT) shows 284,034 infections and 15,074 fatalities in a population of almost 82 million. At Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Golnaz Esfandiari writes of the likelihood of street protests as citizens struggle under a staggered economy amid Western sanctions and uneven handling of the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis that may lead to more lockdowns.

Fifteen Team Members Work Remotely: In Normal Times

In a meeting at Blue Circle Agency in Tehran, from left are Mohammad Memarian, English translator; Ahmad Zouelm, managing director; Majid Khodabakhsi, literary scout; Ali Arabzadeh, international rights; Maryam Hosseini, creative content developer; Ayat Maroofi, portfolio manager; Mobina Kalhorian, creative content developer. Image: BCA

Ali Arabzadeh is Blue Circle’s international rights director and knows first-hand how rare literary agencies are in his part of the world. We begin by asking him how this agency operates and with how many people onboard.

Ali Arabzadeh: There are four of us in the Blue Circle who work in the office full time: Ahmad in our executive group; Ayat for content; and me and Paniz in rights sales. Of course, there are far more people who work with us. From the beginning, we decided to focus on people’s expertise and not limit ourselves to a specific location. Currently, about 15 members work with us remotely from Poland, Italy, Germany, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Those of us in the office are the management.

We work in a small cultural and artistic complex in Tehran, on the top floor of a gallery café. Sometimes we hold our internal meetings and gatherings with our team members from other cities in the cafe. Most of the time, with all of us so far apart, we hold our meetings online via Skype or WhatsApp. We use digital tools to sync up the team from wherever each person is.

The other part of our work is related to our external partners. That includes communication with Iranian and international authors, illustrators, and publishers whose work we want to represent. In these cases, we hold our meetings in person at their office or at our own. If they’re outside Iran and we’re not able to travel, those online tools come into play.

‘Things Got Messy’

Blue Circle’s Ali Arabzadeh and Ayat Maroofi at Belgrade Book Fair with Dejan Begovic, rights manager, Kreativni Centar.Image: BCA

Publishing Perspectives: How are things going for Blue Circle and it associates now?

AA: At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreaks, things got messy. In the early days, when there was no quarantine, everyone tried to keep up their businesses. We also tried to continue our work as before along with observing the hygienic guidelines. But with the start of quarantine in March, we had to close Blue Circle’s office. If those 15 outlying members of our company could do their job remotely, why couldn’t we?

‘The Boxer’ by Hassan Mousavi, published by Tuti Books, is one of the titles Blue Circle has had success with. Most recently it sold into Arabic, to Beirut’s Dar Al Hadaek Group, and has also had translation rights sales into South Korea and China

This all was happening near the Iranian new year holidays, and we in Iran are not used to celebrating our new year alone. The coronavirus and quarantines disrupted everything. Early on, businesses were shut down one by one, and then with the quarantine, a strange, isolated form of the New Year’s holiday emerged that we had never experienced before.

At first, we found that quarantine wasn’t easy at all. Work routines and procedures weren’t clear or practical. But over time, we found better ways and means through trial and error. By the second week of the quarantine, everything was back to normal and we were able to move forward as before. One very important reason was that we were already using tools like Trello and there wasn’t going to be a revolution in our work because of the quarantine. We just needed to get coordinated, and we did.

It was more challenging to keep our external communications going. We have publishers we couldn’t hold online meetings with, meaning a lot of our related business was suspended as long as the lockdowns would continue. So we worked with our more communications-adept publishers in the interim.

‘Paniz Tested Positive for the Coronavirus’

PP: How are things looking in Iran at this point? There are reports that some level of lockdowns might have to return.

AA: Iran’s economy isn’t in a position to continue with quarantine. Businesses have resumed their work step by step, starting with the least risky elements, in terms of the virus. We reopened the office in May, about two months after the onset, but at first we went in only on two days a week–with a handful of disinfectants, masks, and so on. Then we increased the number days there, and the number of disinfectants and masks.

‘His Ego’ by Reza Amirkhani – about romance and Iran’s urbanization – has had its Armenian rights sold to Darak Publications

Our customers and external colleagues returned to work in much the same way and with a little delay. We were able to put things back onto the rails very quickly and easily. The reason was that during the quarantine days, we kept in touch and didn’t allow these two months to pass in boredom and doing nothing.

Now, more or less, everyone is back at work. We work in the office every day now like before. The only thing that’s changed is the handful of disinfectants and masks. Of course, some people still prefer to use remote tools for meetings and conversations, and we welcome that. The more a system uses new tools, the faster and more efficient it becomes, and the easier it is to communicate with it–and now that this global epidemic has forced us all to do so, why not take full advantage of the situation?

Until recently, we didn’t have any adjustments, layoffs, or forced leave. That changed when Paniz, one of our office members in sales, said she wouldn’t come to work for a day or two because she didn’t feel well.

We didn’t take the matter seriously at first. She was just a little weary, and her breathing was heavy. We thought it might be because of summer and the heat. But in the weekly meeting of the sales team, which we hold on Skype, we saw that her condition was getting worse, and she was constantly coughing.

On the evening of the same day, she tested positive for the coronavirus.

Paniz is better now, and I hope she’ll get over her illness soon and come back to the office. But COVID-19 isn’t a joke, and no matter how well we follow the rules of hygiene, there’s no guarantee we won’t get it.

‘Fifteen to 20 License Agreements’ Now Uncertain

Ali Arabzadeh, international rights director with Blue Circle Agency in Tehran

PP: Can you quantify or estimate how damaging the effects of the pandemic may be to your business?

AA: The biggest thing the coronavirus has done to us is stop or slow down our communications.

Publishers and co-agencies, especially from countries in our region, have responded to our requests and questions with too much delay. But the coronavirus has created a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity, and that’s making it difficult for publishers to predict the future. Since our job involves convincing publishers to invest in books, this uncertainty has solemnly affected these investments.

‘Kiss the Lovely Face of God’ by Mostafa Mastoor is a major hit in Iran and most recently had its Urdu translation rights sold into Pakistan. Other deals include Turkish (Ağaç Kitabevi); Russian (Alhoda Publishing Group); Indonesian (Ufuk Press); Bosnian (Karađoz Group); and Arabic (Egypt, Dar Al Tanweer)

My quick prediction is that at least 15 to 20 license agreements that we could have over the next three months now have an unknown future because of the coronavirus, and this is our major loss. The decline in team productivity is another kind of loss, too, though we’ve tried to manage that one.

What’s more, we’ve had book markets and events. closed. We normally rely heavily on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and we’d been invited to attend this year.  Especially the Bologna Fair, on which we relied heavily. This year the Bologna Fair had invited The Blue Circle to attend the event. We were so excited about it, and we thought we could reach our appointments and contracts comfortably.

When the exhibition was canceled and the PubMatch online platform started working, it was supposed to replace the fair’s rights center, but we haven’t had much output from PubMatch.

Another event we’d counted on was the Istanbul International Literature Festival’s fellowship. We were accepted and were supposed to attend, but again, because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to go.

Now the Frankfurter Buchmesse fellowship programs have selected us to attend, but in-person networking may not be possible. And there’s nothing as important as the communication in our job. Face-to-face exhibitions and meetings have the most impact on cooperation.

We did have a book we submitted for Frankfurt’s The Arts+ chosen as one of nine finalists.

Another major event related to the Iranian publishing industry during the quarantine days was the closure of the Tehran International Book Fair. The exhibition was going to take place for its 33rd year. More than 2,000 Iranian publishers and several hundred international publishers participate in the book fair normally, with more than 4 million visitors. The Iranian publishing industry gets a lot of its revenue by selling books on the exhibition days. And Iranian agencies and publishers can contact international publishers and establish cooperation during the fair. So it’s a big loss this year to our publishing industry.

Some small good things have also happened to the Iranian publishing industry. During the quarantine days in Iran, book reading increased, the statistics tell us. Ebook and audiobook sales went up. People got quickly adapted to the new conditions and replaced their old methods of book reading with the new ones. Many bookstores started selling online, and many people welcomed the new approach.

So in general, the pandemic has led old-fashioned people to reconcile with new tools, which is a good thing. As a result, some of our customers have become more interested in publishing and selling their books in electronic or audio versions, and may welcome the approach even more in the future.

Financially, there’s been no help for agencies. The government has provided the publishing companies with assistance and support but literary agencies haven’t yet been recognized professionally and taken seriously in Iran. This makes the process of receiving such support impossible. Some general support, such as the deadline extension given by banks for loan settlement, did include us.

At least for now, both our internal team and our external circle are now getting on with their work and negotiations more calmly. But all  kinds of businesses in Iran were already facing financial problems because of sanctions, and the depreciation of the Iranian currency. The conditions of quarantine and the semi-closure of businesses have been another blow to our economy and have worsened the situation. It’s a message telling us that we have to have more energy to survive in this economic struggle.

We wish well-being and success to all businesses, especially those related to books, and I hope the situation will be the same as before and that we can all work together with energy.

The four core team members of Tehran’s Blue Circle Agency at work. Image: BCA

More from Publishing Perspectives in our Coronavirus Worklife series is here and more on Iran is here. And more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.