What do Book Editors Want? Spotlight

bookblast talks french institute london What do book editors want?

“What do book editors want?” was one of the headline discussion panels held six days ago at the French Institute in London as part of this year’s Britain and Creative Europe Programme.

Britain is part of Europe – like it or not! Border controls do not function when it comes to words since ideas have no borders. Books in translation disseminating knowledge and cultural awareness matter more than ever as prejudice and discrimination make an unwelcome (re)appearance on the Western stage.

As part of the build up to France’s invitation of honour to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2017, a series of discussion panels – “triangular talks” – were held at the French Institute (IFRU) in London. Leading book editors from Germany, France and Britain met to discuss fiction, non fiction and what the future holds. Publishers, translators, agents and scouts packed out the library at the IFRU to hear them.

Non-fiction showcase
“The Second World War is endlessly fascinating,” Laura Macaulay, (Deputy Publisher, Pushkin Press).

Laura kicked off her presentation with a brief introduction about Pushkin which exclusively publishes international literature, (both fiction and non fiction).  All their books are from other cultures and countries. 80% of their list is translated from other languages. Laura’s schtick is narrative non fiction and memoir. She presented three books. 
Summer Before the Dark which is by a journalist who lives in Berlin, Volker Weidermann. It is a non-fiction novel about a group of artists and writers volker weidermann bookblast(including Stefan Zweig who is also published by Pushkin) fleeing Austria in 1936 to find a temporary haven in Ostend. 
Browse edited by Henry Hitchings is a collection of original essays about international bookshops written by authors around the world. Cosmopolitan in spirit, it is a celebration of indie bookshops which are thriving despite the rise of internet bookselling. Essayists include: Ali Smith, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Alaa Al Aswany, Iain Sinclair, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Andrey Kurkov, (a favourite of mine – Death and the Penguin, Penguin Lost and The Penguin Novels are a must-read!). Indie booksellers really took to it and readers love it, she said. It is a different kind of success: translation rights have been sold in Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, China and possibly Korea since it is so international in scope. What about France I wonder – any takers?
In the Restaurant by Christoph Ribbat is history of restaurants starting in Paris in the 1800s, to today. It is both social history and anecdotal.

BUY Summer Before the Dark

The Panama Papers was an exciting project to work on,” Martin Breitfeld, (Senior Editor, Kiepenheuer & Witsch).
Two years ago, Martin was called at midnight by journalists Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, telling him that they had a book, but could not say much more than that. They went on to work in secret via encrypted emails to produce The Panama Papers. Translation rights have been sold to fifteen countries and film rights have gone to Netflix. 
Sacha Batthyany’s  A Crime in the Family was shortlisted for the Swiss Book Prize 2016. Batthyany  discovered that his aunt  – “the hostess from Hell” – was involved in one of the most terrible Nazi crimes to be committed at the end of World War Two involving the massacre of 180 Jews.
Silke Burmester’s Mother’s Blues addresses empty-nest syndrome, the onset of menopause, and the pain mothers feel when their children stop being children. The author has been a huge talk show success, and is loved by audiences.

BUY The Panama Papers

“Serious books survive for about fifteen years before falling into oblivion,” Séverine Nikel, (Director, Non-Fiction, Le Seuil).
Séverine talked about A Global history of France by Patrick Boucheron which she commissioned a year ago, for a global readership. It shows how French history has always intertwined with transnational currents; and has sold nearly 100,000 copies. Le Seuil have been surprised by its success especially as it is 800 pages long. The book has just been awarded a major prize, Le Prix aujourd’hui.
Thomas Piketty’s Pour un traité de démocratisation de l’Europe was written in three days following on from a phone call. It was in the bookshops four days after completion and delivery. A huge adrenaline surge was necessary to get it out so fast. It outlines a treaty project to reform the government of the Eurozone, involving the creation of an Assembly. The first print run is of 15,000 copies and it is being sold around Europe.

BUY Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’: An Introduction

bookblast alex christofi and severine nikel
Alex Christofi & Séverine Nikel

Alex Christofi, (author and editor, Oneworld), gave the last non-fiction showcase. His novel Glass, a comic look at how to live, is published by Serpent’s Tail.  He kicked off with a description of how the English language rights to The Panama Papers were acquired from the Tanja Howarth literary agency. The turnaround to get an English-language manuscript was fast, thanks to the round-the-clock teamwork of four translators producing a manuscript in just three weeks. In all it took seven weeks to get the book out.
Alex went on to describe macro-economist, Johan Norberg’s, Progress which is in the mould of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. A global narrative, it is an uplifting antidote to the deluge of daily doom we get from the Media. Taking the long view, in ten chapters, it shows how we have failed to appreciate the progress made over the last century. There have been huge increases in literacy and reductions of child poverty and violence.

He ended with The Angry Chef by Andrew Warner, due out in July. With its focus on bad science and the truth about healthy eating, it sounds perfect for radio chat shows.

BUY The Angry Chef

Current Trends
– The urgent, of-the-moment, unmissable opportunity of a topic which turns up in a phone call like The Panama Papers or Pour un traité de démocratisation de l’Europe.
– Non fiction narratives with a personal approach; a semi-biographical project or exploration of a specific topic. Red Love by Maxim Leo, about growing up in East Germany, is a good example of a retelling of historical events seen through a personal lens; as is Volker Weidermann’s Summer Before The Dark
– Transnational currents and global history.

Motivation: to buy or not to buy?
When it comes to translations, commissioning editors are competing with the internet (rather than other publishers) and the sales team has to approve the acquisition. The bigger the book, the idea, the name, the easier it is for a book to get through the acquisition process.
What works in France can be too French for Germany; what works in Germany may not work in Britain, and so on.
Political or social science titles that open up new horizons, or reverse traditional narratives, or question and revisit, say, the democratic process, are popular with commissioning editors; as are books about unconventional economics.
Global trending stories that drive mediatised domestic narratives give an author global appeal, so editors buying in other territories are more likely to take a risk on them. The Panama Papers is a good example of a book which goes back to the source of the story and is different to news revelations. The question is asked: “What does it feel like when someone contacts you and says, ‘I have 11.5 million secret documents. Will you work with eighteen journalists in 400 countries for a year in secrecy and persuade your boss not to sack you?’” How do you manage to do that and get away with it? Answering such questions is how a narrative story is lifted away from the internet, and gives depth and context.
The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby addresses the refugee crisis and asks: “What do you do when they turn up at your door and you see they are human beings?”
Antoine Leiris writes in You Will Not Have My Hate about losing his wife (and mother of their baby) in the Paris attacks at Bataclan theatre, and his response in the face of such a loss. In these three instances, the authors were uniquely placed to write about events which become a sweeping narrative.
How foreign books travel is the same as for their British counterparts since the same basic criteria apply: good writing, good narrative, good story, and is there a readership out there for it?

Fiction Showcase

bookblast anna kelly and anna von planta
Anna Kelly & Anna von Planta

Anna Kelly, (Commissioning Editor, Fourth Estate), opened with a novel treating important ideas which crossed her desk  when she was working at Hamish Hamilton. It gave her that feeling of “Omigod this novel is brilliant and funny this writer, is amazing!” but was rejected as it needed extensive work. Then it boomeranged back to her.
The Transition by Luke Kennard, known until now as a poet, is a debut novel. The book is very funny and very dark. Set in the near future, the premise is a young couple arriving at a moment of financial crisis where the problems we see now have worsened, and young people live in smaller and smaller spaces in cities. There is a generation gap, young people do not feel financially secure, or able to own their own property. The couple live in a tiny room in a house. The protagonist is up to his eyes in credit card debt and will end up in prison as he struggles to get out of it, unless he takes part in a scheme – the transition. The couple move in to the spare room of an older couple who teach them how to live; how to pay bills, eat, dress, spend their money and have a successful career. It was a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’. Rogers, Coleridge & White have sold it into Germany and Turkey. Is it a Peter Straus special, I ask myself?

Anna affirmed that since Brexit, the lie of the land has shifted radically. Books that address the ways of the world and give readers hope, or which are analytical, are now pivotal. Buzzwords like ‘literary dystopia’ are all the rage. Novels which look to the future, or explore our present reality through a dystopian lens have risen to the top of the pile. There is also a strong leaning towards satire. Anna would love to find a satirical novel about the political situation in the UK (take note, all you agents out there!). Howard Jacobson’s novel about Trump called Pussy is likely to do well. Enid Blyton-based books about Brexit have also sold well. In other words, serious or farcical books are attractive to editors.

She concluded that huge debates have raged over the years about diversity and race and the problem that very few people working in publishing are not white, so the events of 2016 are a wake-up call now that there is a very real resurgence of racism. What happened was a crystallisation of what was already going on.

BUY Pussy

A love of reading starts early,” Anna von Planta, (Editor, Diogenes). She went on to quote Daniel Keel, the Founder of Diogenes, who chose a book saying, “Either I like a book, or I don’t,” which, she added, “is not a very analytical way of publishing, but it works.” The crime fiction of Petros Markaris may be plotted around the investigations of a police commissioner roaming the streets of Athens and the Islands, but the impact of immigration and the failing economy of Greece are the backdrop. Diogenes’ most successful ‘French’ author is British, Martin Walker; and their most successful ‘Italian’ is an American, Donna Leon. “We are Swiss, we are between cultures, best not take ourselves too seriously,” she concluded with a twinkle in her eye.

BUY The Anonymous Venetian

The differences between fiction and non fiction are less and less. Their boundaries are increasingly blurred,” Manuel Carcassonne, (Managing Director, Stock). He is working on that peculiarly French phenomenon, La rentrée littéraire, when 300-350 novels are published in one great wave in August-September. He flagged up Christophe Boltanski’s La Cache (The Safe House) which will be published by Chicago University Press later on this year. 3000 copies were printed and sold, going up to 18 000 after winning the Prix Femina. Booksellers said it was not a novel and queried it being sold as one, when it is noir non fiction. 

Fashionista, Anne Berest – author of Sagan 1954, Recherche femme parfaite and How To Be Parisian (with Audrey Diwan) – has turned to the life of her great-grandmother, Gabrielle Buffet. A strong woman, the muse died age 104; her husband was the artist Francis Picabia. The book began as a non fiction work and morphed into fiction.

BUY The Safe House

To publish a translation today, it has to have very, very strong social relevance, and it has to be literature,” Jorghi Poll, (Editor, Edition Atelier). He presented Mascha Dabić’s first novel, Reibungsverluste, a fictionalised narrative of her own experiences. An interpreter, Nora, is a mouthpiece for traumatized refugees, as well as for psychotherapists. She finds it increasingly difficult to stay detached and struggles to accept the political and social status quo. She chose to write it as fiction since it freed her to explore the issues since it meant she could get better perspective and distance.

Back to the Future

bookblast jacques testard
Jacques Testard

Jacques Testard, (Publisher, Fitzcarraldo; co-editor of The White Review), looks for writing from the margins; new voices to translate or commission. The quality of the writing and the extent to which a book is genuinely innovative in terms of structure and experimentation are all-important. Fitzcarraldo do not use agents much since budgets are minimal. Their books are in fact essays of around 15-16,000 words, examples being Nicotine by Gregor Henz, with an introduction by Will Self; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand time, (a runaway success).

BUY Nicotine

bookblast sophie de closets
Sophie de Closets

The future lies in the reading experience, rather than the form. Our identity and how it is taught to us, matters,” Sophie de Closets, (Editor and Managing Director, Fayard). Fayard is moving away from a traditional list of history and biography, towards books that are less of a hard-sell into a changing marketplace. Non fiction still lies at the heart of Fayard, but narrative non fiction is what generates excitement (and sales). How to shape a narrative and reach an audience is the aim. As is publishing books they can be proud of.

Bill Swainson, (Editor-at-large, Oneworld and MacLehose Press), has reinvented himself as a portfolio publisher since leaving Bloomsbury a year ago. His mission is to find fiction for translation for Maclehose Press, and non fiction for Oneworld. Social networking is developing new ways of reading, however the whole print vs. digital issue is a subject for debate in itself . . . Sharply-focused publishing and releasing fewer books are the way forwards. Publishing some commercial titles is crucial in order to be able to publish fine books. For example, Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood was a major phenomenon for Maclehose Press. Oneworld have managed to win the Booker Prize twice; they will publish philosopher A.C. Grayling’s Democracy and its Crisis in September. It is important to work with writers to bring issues into the public sphere which usually get brushed aside.

bookblast bill swainson and jorghi poll
Bill Swainson & Jorghi Poll

Bill has great experience, a good eye and a shrewd, independent mind. He is not one to follow the herd and be overly influenced by fads and trends. I was heartened by his words and his presence on the panel. “Trends cannot be manufactured,” he said. “Nature writing may be a trend now, but it wasn’t three years ago. Your heart has to be in what you are publishing. How to encourage a broader readership is a perennial question. We have a well-read 50 to 75 year old readership which knows how to download and use a kindle. Then there is a 35 to 55 year old readership reading a couple of books a year as well as newspapers, magazines, websites and social media. Those coming up behind seem to be more politically engaged yet there is so much coming at them, their reading involves short books, not even essays, but 300-word blogs. We need to look at how we publish and the forms we are using, and ask if they are appropriate; if we can develop a new form. A retreat into nostalgia and utopia and fictionalised biographies of bygone lost eras is not the future.

BUY Norwegian Wood

Timing is a key factor, and is, in part, what makes gamblers of anyone involved in publishing wage earners and self-employed mavericks alike. (Statistics are powerful, but not everything.) Why is it that one book takes off, invariably kicking off a new trend, (an editor at Laurence King is behind the recent tidal wave of adult colouring books), yet another does not?

The consequences of the seismic events of 2016 will not be properly felt for a good few years, as was the case with the millennium. The nature of the publishing industry is such that a constant supply of books and high rates of turnover are required to keep the home fires burning. Yet it takes time to build up a writer and an audience, and the relentless nature of the book machine runs against this. What/who is worthwhile takes years to grow.

BUY Democracy and its Crisis

The Triangular Talks were underpinned by the spirit of friendship and co-operation, and were orchestrated by the French Book Office of the IFRU in partnership with the Goethe-Institut, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the French Embassy in London, New Books in German, the Frankfurt auf Französisch 2017 programme at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the Franco-German Cultural Fund.

In the 1990s, Georgia de Chamberet published Tahar Ben Jelloun, Daniel Pennac, Annie Ernaux, Hervé Guibert, Aharon Appelfeld, Per Olov Enquist and Simon Leys (whose novel, The Death of Napoleon, won the 1992 Independent Award for Foreign Fiction). She edited XCiTés: the Flamingo Book of New French Writing, (Harpercollins, 1999), to showcase a generation of French authors unpublished and unknown in English at the time, including Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Virginie Despentes, Tonino Benacquista, Abdourahman Waberi. The literary executor of three literary estates, she was a founder member of English PEN’s Writers in Translation committee.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.