Rights Edition Interview: Literary Agent Urpu Strellman Returns to Publishing

In News by Porter Anderson

With Helsinki Literary Agency selling up to 150 books yearly, its former CEO, Urpu Strellman, heads for her publishing roots at Art House.

Urpu Strellman, formerly the CEO of Helsinki Literary Agency, is the new owner and CEO of Helsinki’s Art House. Here she’s seen with the former Art House owner Heikki Haavikko on June 3. Image: Pentti Tuovinen

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

‘Rights Sales Have Increased All the Time’
Among the most familiar literary agencies to our regular readers of our Rights Editions and Rights Roundups, the Helsinki Literary Agency is one that frequently stands out for the depth of the writings it represents and its success in the international translation and publication rights arena. It’s a key player in the much-envied ring of Nordic rights powerhouse markets that seem to thrive so reliably in world publishing’s rights-trading sphere.

This week, some of us received a note from the agency’s former CEO, Urpu Strellman, who has led the agency since its founding in December 2016 by three independent publishers in Finland—GummerusTeos, and Schildts & Söderströms.

In her initial message this week, Strellman said that she’s leaving the agency to buy the Finnish publishing house known as Art House. Heikki Haavikko and the Haavikko Foundation are selling Art House to Strellman, and she will be its chief, with ownership of the house’s important imprints Jalava and Tietosanoma going to her, as well.

Art House, which began operations in 1987, is one of five mid-sized independent general-interest publishing houses in Finland, Strellman points out, a market with a “strongly centralized publishing market,” as she puts it.

And Art House is also Strellman’s career home: She as editor-in-chief at Art House from 2005 to 2016—before taking up her leadership post at Helsinki Literary Agency—she’s now returning to Art House, “now as its owner,” she says.

This unusual move has given us a chance to talk with Strellman about not only her new move but also about the experience she’s had at the agency she has helmed.

Rights Revenues ‘Four Times Those of 2017’

Seeing Strellman make the jump back to publishing and Art House from Helsinki Literary Agency that the Finnish market for literary agents has in some way declined or proven less hardy in international rights markets than it has been in the past.

“What’s most important is that I really feel that we in the agency have created a genuinely great relationship with not only our authors but also with the foreign publishers, agents and scouts: there is genuine interest, and this network of people really feels like a family.”Urpu Strellman

“No, quite the contrary, Strellman tells us. ” Helsinki Literary Agency’s list is stronger than ever.” It’s no sinking ship she’s leaving.

“When I started in the agency in the beginning of 2017,” she says, “it was me as the only agent, and a list of 20 authors. Now there are four people in the agency, and will be also after my departure. And the number of our authors and illustrators is more than 150, including 10 winners of Finland’s biggest literary award, the Finlandia Prize—15, if you count in the Finlandia Junior winners for the children’s literature. And there are seven winners of the second biggest, even more literary award, the Runeberg Prize, plus five 5 Runeberg Junior winners.”

What’s more, she says, the rights trade at the agency has gone straight up.

“The foreign rights sales have increased all the time” Strellman says, “and the agency is selling between 100 and 150 titles yearly, with the net value of sales increasing year by year. The annual turnover in 2023 was more than five times that of 2017. The rights revenues of 2023 are almost 10 times those of in 2017.”

In 11 years with the agency, however, she tells us, market factors have indeed evolved, she says.

“The thing that has changed for Helsinki Literary Agency in these past years,” she says, “is that it stands alone now: its operations are not depending on one single person anymore. For the past couple of years, my big strategic goal in the agency has been to strengthen it so that any changes in the personnel wouldn’t affect its operational capacity.

“This is one of the reasons I stepped down as the CEO last September—on the side of the fact that because of the growth in sales, the administrative work had grown to such a level that it took one person’s full time, leaving too little time to work with the books and the authors,” an all too familiar fact of life for those who have learned that success is harder, not easier, to maintain.

“By now,” she says, “this very necessary and important administration runs solidly and has been organized in a way that gives a chance for the agents to focus on the most important things: books.

“I see Helsinki Literary Agency as the strongest player in the Finnish foreign rights field,” Strellman says, pointing to a bright future for the outfit she’s leaving.

‘”Its list comprises all genres, and in all genres the books are of international quality. Our most recent successes are Iida Turpeinen’s debut novel Beasts of the Sea–the Frankfurt hot title of 2023–which was pre-empted to all major language areas except for France where there was an auction. It has so far been sold to 24 areas. “Finnish literature has never before seen such pre-empts for a literary debut, let alone such a quick success.

“Also, this year we sold Pirkko Saisio’s ‘Helsinki Trilogy’ to Penguin Modern Classics, Saisio being the second Finnish author on the list, and the first living one.

“What’s most important is that I really feel that we in the agency have created a genuinely great relationship with not only our authors but also with the foreign publishers, agents and scouts: there is genuine interest, and this network of people really feels like a family.”

The Rights Sales Landscape in Finland

Taking advantage of Strellman’s more-than-a-decade in the agent’s seat—a job now bookended by publishing—we ask how the rights business in her market has changed, and she tells us, “During my time as an agent the Finnish landscape in selling rights has changed a lot to a more professional direction. We are still way behind our western neighbor Sweden, where the sales of foreign rights have been a real business for some decades, but the changes in the past five to ten years in Finland are remarkable.

“The selling of foreign rights has become an essential and visible part of the literary field in Finland. Ten years ago the view was totally different.”Urpu Strellman

“There are more and more successes, and each one opens doors for other Finnish titles. This has become possible as the amount of full-time agents, in agencies, has grown, even if the number of agencies and foreign rights departments has stayed about the same, but also because the attention and view of publishers and authors has little by little widened to take in the whole world and not just Finland.”

The biggest change she sees, Strellman says, is that “The selling of foreign rights has become an essential and visible part of the literary field in Finland. Ten years ago the view was totally different, and many of the publishing professionals in the field, let alone the authors, didn’t think that Finnish literature would be of interest abroad. Now, thanks to the consistent work of agents and the successes, a demand for Finnish literature abroad has been created.”

Returning to Publishing: Not a Surprise

“I have known since the day I started in the agency,” Strellman says, “that I will one day return to publishing. But, in late 2016 when the decision to start the agency was made, taking on the chance to build an agency from scratch was such an opportunity that it would have been crazy to let it pass.

“As for the translations to Finnish, we’ll be actively looking for titles that suit our list.” Urpu Strellman

“At the time, there was only one independent agency in Finland, and the concept of three Finnish and otherwise competing publishing houses teaming up to join forces to build an agency—Siltala joined them a couple of years later—was such a new and original setup that I just had to see it through.”

Some things don’t change, however: “Still, for the past few years when the agency already has been going strong, I’ve noticed I miss more and more being a publisher.

“What did in part influence my decision to actually buy a publishing house instead of seeking a job on the payroll of some other publisher is that in the agency I had a great chance to learn a lot from the four publishers who own the agency. Getting to see how they work and being able to see different ways to publish and promote literature has been a really good school for me. Of course also my view of the international market has gotten a lot wider during these seven and a half years in the agency.”

She also points out that Art House’s own rights-selling activities will not compete with those of the agency: “About 50 percent of the titles are translated” at Art House, she says, “and in the Finnish titles, the strong focus is on nonfiction, which is mostly targeted for the domestic audience. This said, I actually do have a few ideas of titles that might be of interest abroad, but I’ll need to wait a while before sharing them with you.

“As for the translations to Finnish, the case is different: we’ll be actively looking for titles that suit our list. Art House has quite a strong list of translated children’s fiction—a lot of classics from Montgomery and Burnett to Alcott and Barrie, but also illustrated titles. There’s also some translated nonfiction; this autumn, The Short History of Humanity by the German Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe is coming out, and on the YA nonfiction side, Adam Kay’s Incredible Inventions. In the past, Art House has had a very good popular science list, too, so that’s not out of the question either.”

Art House’s imprint Jalava, Strellman says, has a list that’s almost entirely translated, publishing horror—”I believe the Lovecraft editions are one of the widest in translation”—as well as fantasy focused in the “Forgotten Realms” and “Dragonlance” canon. These, she says, take up a major part of the list, which  has been augmented by authors recently including Brandon Sanderson and N. K. Jemisin, plus science-fiction and graphic novels, particularly on the classic side: Corto Maltese, Sokal, Alex Raymond, Modesty Blaise.

“We’ll be strengthening these existing lines of publishing,” she says, “so I’m eagerly waiting for the Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 16 to 20) and meetings with agents. I also have had for a longer time an idea of creating a crime list, putting together quality authors from different language areas—to get some variation to our very English- and Finnish-driven crime market.

Urtė Liepuoniūtė

Meanwhile, the ownership of the Helsinki Literary Agency continues to be with its founding publishers (Siltala having acquired Teos, as you’ll recall).

“The team will be as great as ever: My old colleague Urtė Liepuoniūtė will return to the agency to a role of a senior literary agent after about a year of focusing on her translations, and the talented Chiara Stanziani will continue as an agent, too.

“The agency is headed by CEO Viivi Arela, who started there in 2020, and the team is supported by literary assistant Anastasia Basova. If you take my word for it, I’ll say that HLA has a dream team of these professional and inspired agents who share a true passion for literature.”

And Urpu Strellman has a big smile on her face: “For me this feels like a homecoming: despite the great and inspiring years I’ve spent at Helsinki Literary Agency and the splendid authors we have managed to bring to the international market, I have always been a publisher at heart.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Finnish market is here, more on literary agents is here, and more on international rights and trading is here. Our Rights Roundup series is here. 

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.