More countries, better books

More countries, better books
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Mladen Jandrlic at the 2007 Prague Book Fair
Mladen Jandrlic, founder and director of Zurich-based literary agency books & rights, argues the case for increased cooperation between small publishers across national borders

Translated from the German by the 2008 German 443 class at the University of Alberta in Canada**

Small publishers produce small print runs, but place great emphasis on quality. The balancing act between originality and commercial appeal, a topic of hot debate among editors and sales reps at the larger companies, is particularly precarious for the smaller ones. For these small publishers, originality is an important factor, if not the most important factor in their future success. Mainstream publishing is mainstream precisely because it doesn't consist of small print runs and special series. Small publishers' series must be distinctive enough to differentiate themselves from those of large publishers, while at the same time commercial enough to finance the next production.

Originality is an equally sensitive matter on the international stage: it's not easy to sell bland and non-descript books abroad. The more original the book, the greater the importance of finding just the right home for it abroad, bearing in mind that its foreign publisher is likely to be as small as its domestic one. This makes things even trickier. And it's worth remembering that foreign rights' sales are often just as important a source of income for small publishing houses as their sales on the domestic market.

Small publishing houses often take it upon themselves to promote as yet unknown talent, hopefully helping their careers to grow. This is anything but simple, as it is difficult to gauge how new talent will be received by the public. Their originality can be both a blessing and a curse.

None of this applies exclusively to German publishers. Opinions about what is innovative and what is commercial may differ slightly from country to country, but the problems faced by small publishers as they struggle to exist in a highly competitive market are the same throughout the world.

This begs the question as to why publishers, particularly the smaller ones, don't collaborate. Publishers usually produce their series of books and only then look for foreign buyers for the finished products. Why not look for partners sooner? What's wrong with planning and publishing books as a collaborative effort right from the beginning? The advantages are obvious: publishers could produce larger print runs and target a larger market. They could agree upon promotional approaches and develop joint marketing strategies. They could appear together at book fairs that would ordinarily be too expensive for them to attend alone. And the prospect of being published in more than one language right from the beginning would be a strong incentive for both new and established talent to work with these publishers. In addition, future reprints could be planned and managed more flexibly: smaller print runs would also be financially viable with the involvement of the partner publisher.

There's more to it than the obvious commercial and distribution aspects, however. The exchange of ideas and the cooperation that takes place at the planning stage will also have a positive effect on the quality of the books produced. The partners' respective artistic preferences and expectations of the market will help the projects achieve that balancing act between commercial success and originality which is so important for small publishing houses.

And foreign rights? Here too there are advantages to be gained. Projects developed for two markets right from the beginning have more of an international focus and are more attractive for foreign buyers for that very reason.

One example of how this might function is the joint venture between the Spanish publisher Thule and the German children's publisher Wolff. Together, the publishers have developed a picture book that was introduced to the public at the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair. The Catalan and Spanish editions appeared on the market last autumn, and the German version will be in stores this spring. The story was written by Catalan author Antonio Lozano, and the illustrations were done by the German artist Birte Müller. The project was coordinated by the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Goethe Institute, and was financially supported by the German Foreign Office with help from the Institut Ramón Llull in Catalonia. Publishers Arianna Squilloni and Thomas Wolff first met at a publishers' conference organized by the German periodical Buchmarkt.

The idea of creating a network of small publishers across national boundaries, even in the absence of sponsors, is an exciting one. Working together to achieve quality while at the same time making money is surely what everybody wants.

Why not right from the start?

 

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**With thanks to Jocelyn Bal, Brendan Cavanagh, Margaret Allyson Haug, Tys Klumpenhouwer, Allison Leslie, Chris Lewis, Ivana Radojevic, Jillian Randall and Marie Stillger

This article originally appeared in the German trade journal Buchmarkt in September 2007. Transcript is grateful to Mladen Jandrlic and to Buchmarkt for permission to reprint the article here.







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