Rights in Reykjavik: Iceland’s Literary Festival Conference

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

One size does not fit all when it comes to rights-selling markets – as Reykjavik’s conference on translation trends points out.

Members of the audience at the April 22 morning sessions of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival conference at Nordic House. Image: RILF

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

A ‘Lack of Public Funding’
In putting together the 16th edition of the biennial Reykjavík International Literary FestivalBókmenntahátíð í Reykjavík—the show’s director, Stella Soffía Jóhannesdóttir, programmed a Saturday morning conference at Nordic House on “International Trends in Translation and Rights Sales.”

While the festival itself is a fondly followed public-facing event in Iceland, Jóhannesdóttir made a calculated adjustment in setting a business-based event into it on April 22, the Saturday immediately following this year’s London Book Fair.

The conference was tied to the fellowship program that Reykjavik has built into its festival, a program that had begun raising the professional bar on the presentation prior to this year’s conference offering, and something that Jóhannesdóttir—a senior agent with Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publisher—has cultivated over several iterations of the festival’s events.

As she pointed out, the morning was attended not only by international participants in the fellowship program but also by Icelandic industry professionals. And it resulted in a layered look at some of the challenges of an advanced, smaller market in world publishing and rights.

Trends in Translation and Rights Sales

Stella Soffía Jóhannesdóttir opens the April 22 ‘International Trends in Translation and Rights Sales’ conference at the 16th Reykjavik International Literary Festival. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

The key highlight of the gathering came first, in the opening comments from Heiðar Ingi Svansson, the managing director of IDNU, who leads the Icelandic market’s publishers’ association and sits on the executive committee of the International Publishers Association (IPA).

While many in professional book publishing are accustomed to following the shifts in emphasis and funding around rights sales and international outreach programs today, it’s not as common to hear directly from the smaller markets, those with languages spoken in very few nations and yet enjoying long-developed and loyal reading cultures at home: more than ready for international literary exchange.

Svansson opened the morning by pointing to the valuable industry-supportive work of the Icelandic Literature Center, in a market admired in many parts of the world for the reading culture and literary loyalty of its almost 400,000 people.

“Translators are extremely important in a small country or area such as Iceland,” Svansson said, “and we can see great results” in the efforts made “to expand translation of Icelandic work in the last decade.”

“What is by far our biggest challenge here is definitely the lack of government funding” in a market of “booming and creative literacy.”Heiðar Ingi Svansson

“But what is also by far our biggest challenge here,” he said, “is definitely the lack of government funding, which could enable the center to perform at the level it should be,” considering what he described as “our booming and creative literacy,” a dynamic ready to support a far more ambitious program by the center and the Icelandic market as a whole.

“While the years pass without our ministry of culture meeting this increased demand, the situation is only getting worse.”

In addition, he said, international rights buyers are telling Reykjavik that because their own costs of doing business are rising, and because their own managements are increasing their demands for profits, they can’t buy as much now as they’ve done in the past unless they get strong translation-grant support from the Literature Center.

This, then, was an eloquent and pointed depiction of one of the sophisticated home-markets of the Nordic literary belt being squeezed by economic realities both on- and offshore, resulting in a clear call for government intervention and assistance.

On the Potential of Rights Trades in Smaller Markets

Heiðar Ingi Svansson speaks at the Icelandic International Literary Festival conference, April 22. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Svansson is an effective and agile speaker, whose eye keeps its wry gleam even when he delivers the most serious news he’s come to report. “Sadly,” he said, “we have not been chosen to be the gatekeepers of public funding.” And despite the fact that “We have to be innovative, focused, organized, and creative regarding translation” at the moment, he said, “I really believe that we are getting closer to the point in time when all stakeholders will be called on board to form a strategic action plan with the ministry of culture.”

“We live in troubling times in the global publishing sector. It’s like having a blank piece of paper in front of us and not knowing what story to write on it.”Heiðar Ingi Svansson

Svansson wasn’t performing the “what have you done for us lately?” approach that many politicians and ministerial-level cultural personnel often hear. Instead, he spoke to the conference about the need “for us to step up our game and do something drastic.” He referred to Iceland’s highly regarded presentation of its market in 2011 as Frankfurter Buchmesse‘s guest of honor. “We need to think big,” he said, as the market did then.

He pointed to seminar work at London Book Fair earlier in the week that looked at what’s needed to make books a bigger focus for streamers and other broadcasters. “Here’s an opportunity,” Svansson said, “for Icelandic literature that we should do something about.”

Likewise, he said, “We have the same problem with the lack of public funding” when it comes to keeping up with increasing demand “regarding translation from foreign languages into Icelandic.”

Rights sellers’ contracts, Svansson told the audience’s attendees from outside Iceland, “have changed, with an adaptation to new revenue streams” which might make sense in large-populations that offer multi-channel opportunities to exploit subsidiary rights across platforms and media. “But these standard changes make no sense,” he said, “in a tiny market like Iceland” in which “we really need an understanding from you”–referencing international rights buyers–that “our unique position with only around 380,000 inhabitants” means that the panoply of rights-sales potential just isn’t in place as it would be in bigger markets.

“We live in troubling times in the global publishing sector,” Svansson told his audience. “It’s like having a blank piece of paper in front of us and not knowing what story to write on it.”

In the remainder of the conference, the audience would hear from Ed Nawotka of the United States’ Publishers Weekly; Cristina Gerosa of Italy’s Iperborea; and Sherif Bakr of Cairo’s Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing, each with apt observations on the state of rights engagement trends from their varied purviews.

‘If This Is a Trend’

The Reykjavik International Literary Festival conference panel on trends in translation and rights sales on April 22. From left: Emma Raddatz; Madlen Reimer; Halldór Guðmundsson; and Martin Graae Jörgensen. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

In concluding the conference, Publishing Perspectives then moderated a panel with distinctive observations on an international rights marketplace that’s full of changes, some of them alluded to by Svansson. Joining us were:

  • Madlen Reimer of Germany’s S. Fischer
  • Martin Graae Jörgensen of Denmark’s Turbine
  • Emma Raddatz of the States’ Archipelago Books
  • Halldór Guðmundsson, chair of Forlagið, and a veteran of the guest of honor turns of both Iceland and Norway at Frankfurt.

During the course of the conversation, Guðmundsson would make the astute point that for all the quick and faithful adoption of audio by the Nordic populations, the genres that seem to propel audiobook consumption tend to be along the lines of “the guilty pleasures you wouldn’t show in a bookstore,” as he put it–to ready nods of understanding in the professional audience listening.

“If this is a trend,” he asked of the panel in pre-presentation exchanges, “what does it mean for translations and rights sales?” As with so many points of the morning, Guðmundsson concluded, “I do not have any answers to this, but I find it an interesting point to discuss.”

Followed as it was by an onstage interview with author Colson Whitehead, Stella Soffía Jóhannesdóttir’s deftly crafted conference proved the value of just that: raising issues, even demands, on behalf of an industry in flux, even when quick answers aren’t available and difficult hurdles lie ahead.

You’ll find a recording of the April 22 sessions from Reykjavik available here.

In a Reykjavik boatyard, April 21. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More on international literary festivals is here, more on international book fairs, trade shows, and festivals is here, more on the Icelandic market is here, more on international rights and licensing in literature is here, more on translation and translators is here, and our Rights Roundup series is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

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.com, 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.