We ought to be inspired.
Interview with the Danish industry magazine, BOGMARKEDET.
How are Danish agencies and publishing houses positioned when it comes to competition on the international book market? We talk to Tine Nielsen from Babel-Bridge Literary Agency.
You have worked many years in London as a literary agent. The British books market is in a rather different league to the Danish one. There must be a significant difference in your workday now and then. What do you find fascinating about your endeavour to sell Danish books in translation?
“I worked for more than 10 years for the English agency, David Higham Associates, where I started as an assistant and ended up heading the department for translation sales. It was a lovely place to work, a well-reputed old agency, founded in 1935, with an impressive backlist and ambitions to grow.
There was endless experience to draw on and most importantly doors that would automatically open abroad because of the big authors represented. I have worked together with John le Carré and Paula Hawkins, represented the Estates of Graham Greene and Roald Dahl. It is clear that you stand every chance of catching the attention of the international publishing network when you have such an author portfolio to draw on.
Actually, my working day is not that transformed: I still focus on translation rights: meaning that it is the same network that I keep warm (with the addition that I am now also attempting to sell into the English-language markets).
The big change is that I get to decide what is represented. At Higham I was part of a bigger machine and was sometimes forced to at least attempt to sell a book abroad, even if I personally could not fully vouch for it. As opposed to that, I am now 100% behind every book that I take along in the programme. That is the biggest and best change to my workday then and now.
Another change is of course the language: whereas before there was automatically easy access because everything I represented for David Higham was in English, I am now dependent on good sample translations. Without them you get nowhere abroad.
A publishing house like Carlsen, which I recently started working with are incredibly cool in that regard. Shortly after we we have agreed that a title will be included in my programme, I get access to English sample translations and in the case of picture books, they even set them up with the illustrations. Hopefully, this will result in quicker sales going forward.
In other cases, I have to wait until the Arts Council give a grant before we can source a sample translation. Here it helps if the publishers I work with send me books early on in the process, as it opens up the possibility to start the application process well in advance of a fair.
A last difference to the working day then and now is that David Higham are primary agents: in other words, they are authors’ agents. Contrary to that, Babel-Bridge is an agency that primarily works as the extended arm of the publishing houses: as a kind of external rights department. The workday is a bit different when your contract is with the publisher: of course there are necessary reports to send, but there is more time to concentrate on the actual selling and less time spent on TLC.
It is fully appropriate that authors demand a higher service level, but it is, needless to say, another noticeable difference between then and now.”
Despite the differences there must be similarities; it is all about books after all.
Which experiences do you draw on from your years in London when you plan a strategy for Babel-Bridge?
„The feeling when you succeed in selling something is equally big: you invest your time and passion in a book or an author and then there is nothing better than to get the confirmation that you have chosen wisely. I recently sold Polish translation rights in a non-fiction title, which was self-published on Amazon by two Danish authors (HOW TO BECOME A VIKING MOM). It was a great feeling that other people in the industry could see its potential and hopefully it will eventually sell in more markets.
An important experience from London is how big a difference it can make to have good, personal relationships with your subagents in the markets where it is difficult to work directly – I have a really fruitful collaboration with for example my co-agent in China/Taiwan and it shows in the sales they have made on my behalf: Kenneth F Petersen and Gry Sveistrups MUM JUST DOES NOT WANT TO SLEEP (Jensen & Dalgaard), Inger Tobiasens IDA-series comprising 20 books (Turbine) and Inger Tobiasens FANNI’S COLOURS-series of 10 books (Fannis Farver).
My subagents know me well after 10 years of collaboration. It inevitably makes a difference when you have to convince them to promote books that they have no chance in assessing in the original language.
Other central experiences I draw on is that I am relatively quick in assessing if a book stands a chance abroad. Above all, it has to have a hook, something that identifies the book and make editors remember your pitch. I am especially trained in textbooks (across the range; from adult to children’s), whereas picture books and the graphic novel/comic genre are new to me. Therefore, I was particularly thrilled to place MARIE CURIE by Frances Andreasen Østerfelt and Anja C. Andersen in Poland and Germany (on behalf of Cobolt) and MOGENS AND MAHDI by Kim Fupz Aakeson og Rasmus Bregnhøj in Germany (on behalf of Carlsen).
It takes a lot of work to build a new network – and when you succeed in selling something, it is worth all the effort.
And of course it is a important to know a bigger market like the English one thoroughly, a market where the publishing scene is more nuanced. The idea of forming a truly independent agency with a focus on translation rights comes from the Anglo-Saxon market, where it is common for primary agencies and publishing houses to gain flexibility and minimise risk by outsourcing rights sales to an external specialised partner.
There are several agencies in the UK and US that operate after this model and who have done so for many years”.
Comparable countries in terms of market size, such as Norway (Guest of Honour in Frankfurt 2019) manage to draw a lot of attention to their literature at the big European book fairs, whereas the Danish efforts are more modest.
What does it mean for your work that you represent Danish publishers?
„It goes without saying that it is frustrating to see neighbouring countries and other similarly sized countries successfully becoming Guests of Honour at the international fairs.
I am for example thinking of the Baltics who were Market Focus at London Book Fair last year and had a marked increase in translation sales before and after. Or Slovenia who have no less than two prominent Guest of Honour programmes coming up (Bologna in 2021 and Frankfurt in 2022).
What is it that holds Denmark back from at least trying?
In the other countries, it is my impression that there is full support in promoting the countries broadly in connection with the Guest of Honour programmes – it is simply branding of a country and a culture, not only of books.
The Guest of Honour programmes are often almost exclusively state-funded, and it goes to show how important other countries find this possibility. One can only hope that with the recent change of government, we might experience an increased openness to cultural projects of this size (the Bologna programme operates with a budget in the region of EUR 300.000; Frankfurt is more expensive).
One thing is certain, it would make a big difference in terms of immediate sales and not least result in an expansion of the international network of publishing contacts in the following years. It should be no secret that I would be very open to what role Babel-Bridge could play in a possible Guest of Honour programme.
I think it is important to emphasise that less can make a difference too. We need a central place where international publishers can go if they are on the look-out for books from Denmark – I have talked to several international publishers who already had Swedish and Norwegian authors on their lists, but did not know what to look for in Denmark (in this particular case, we were talking about YA/Children’s books).
Try to search for „Books from Denmark” on the internet – if you imagine that the person conducting the search is an acquisitions editor on the look out for a Danish author, you have to patiently scroll down through the list, until you get a useful hit. If you on the other hand search for “Books from Norway”, you’ll find Norla’s specially designed website at the very top. Many of us could find inspiration in the SEO optimisation of the Norwegians here.
Another thing that could help is if we collaborate more – among publishers, among rights sellers, among the arts council and the industry. It is really difficult to get the attention of the international publishing community; in fact, I think the competition for the attention has never been bigger.
Therefore, we ought to collaborate where we can – rights departments should share leads with each other if we share an author; the Arts Council should make a note of the people who register interest in Danish books at the fairs, so rights sellers have a chance to follow up. That as a minimum would be a great improvement.
On top of that, I personally think we ought to be inspired by other countries when it comes to shared stands at the book fairs. It would be so great if big as well as small publishers could share a stand and Danish literature wouldn’t be spread across several stands.
Perhaps it is utopian, but imagine a Danish stand, easy to browse and compact, where the recipient would get a quick overview of what moves on the Danish literary scene, both in terms of picture books, YA, graphic novels, adult fiction and non-fiction. Where there would be less emphasis on where each book was published in Denmark, but more focus on the genre, the quality and the selling potential. A stand where the recipient would see that Denmark continues to be at the forefront when it comes to style and design. South-Korea’s stand in Bologna was admittedly divided according to publishers, but is was otherwise a really fine example of how sublime and accessibly if can be done with relatively modest means.
When all this is said, I am completely excited about representing Danish publishers and their authors – there are so many lovely books that deserve international attention and it my biggest ambition that Babel-Bridge with time will make a big difference when it comes to Danish books’ ability to travel”.