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SRB Diary: Our Friends In The North – Scottish Review of Books
by Adrian Searle

SRB Diary: Our Friends In The North

August 14, 2015 | by Adrian Searle

UNTIL four years ago, when I accidently became a publisher, I was rather poorly travelled. Having worked continuously since graduating at 20, I missed out on the itinerant years of my peers. I never ever made it to Ibiza or Phuket; Arbroath and Plockton were as far as my hedonism extended. Publishing is an international business and it’s incumbent on those holding the rights to books to seek deals with other publishers across the world, to maximise revenues for their authors and themselves. There’s also the hope of stumbling across a potential UK bestseller buried in the backlist of a foreign publisher. Trust is the foundation of these transactions. So it’s better to meet publishers face to face. To this end, I’ve recently visited Ljubljana, New York, Frankfurt (several times), Berlin and Gothenburg, often with financial support from Publishing Scotland, our industry trade body. My company, Freight, has sold rights to Germany, France, Holland, the USA/Canada and Australia/New Zealand. We’ve also established export deals in North America, Australasia and South Africa. The sale of rights, I’ve come to realise, generates more income than sales of physical copies. And once one deal has been agreed with a particular publisher, it’s easier to sell other books. That’s the theory any way.

Late on a Monday night in May, I fly from Edinburgh to Oslo to participate in an international delegation visiting Norwegian publishers. The trip is paid for by Norla (pronounced noorla), the Norwegian public agency which promotes the nation’s books and authors abroad. Norway is one of the world’s richest countries; the International Monetary Fund places it fourth, behind Qatar, Luxembourg and Switzerland. The United Kingdom is 23rd. Scotland shares many historical similarities with Norway. Both are marginal north European nations in thrall to larger neighbours (Norway achieved independence from Sweden in 1905). Both have a heritage in agriculture, fishing and natty jumpers. Both discovered oil in the 1960s – one since faring rather better than the other. As a fan of Scandinavian design, I’m looking forward to seeing on what Norway has spent its money. 

* * *

FREIGHT has bought and translated just one Norwegian novel. From the outset I have been keen to publish literature in translation, encouraged by the example of Harvill in the 1980s. Favourites include Lars Gustafsson’s Death of a Beekeeper and Torgny Lindgren’s Merab’s Beauty and Other Stories. To date we’ve published translations from Swiss-German, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish and Slovenian, as well as Norwegian, with Spanish and Afrikaans works also in production. We’ve also published international authors writing in English from Zimbabwe, Germany, France and Turkey.

Publishing is rather like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – we’re all chasing that one big blue marlin; they’re hard to find but they do exist. In 2012, Hesperus, a small London-based company, published a Swedish novel, Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. It probably paid about £1,500 for the rights. Translation will have cost around £8,000. For small independent publishers these are long odds. With production and editorial costs added, you’d have to sell at least 7,000 copies to break even. Most novels in translation sell a thousand if that. Earlier this year it was reported that Hesperus had sold half a million copies in print and 750,000 in e-book form. Unfortunately for Jonasson and Hachette, the ultimate owners of English language rights, Hesperus’s Jordanian directors jumped out of the metaphorical window and disappeared too, having paid a fraction of the royalties owed. 

On my first day in Oslo I have lunch with Arild Stavrum, former professional footballer and Norwegian international, whose scoring record at Aberdeen FC – the team I support – stood for sixteen years. Freight translated and published Arild’s crime novel, Exposed at the Back, which is set in the world of Scandi football. Arild takes me to a restaurant that sits high above city from where you can see the ongoing redevelopment of the docks area. There is a breath-taking view of the Oslo Opera House built by local architect Tarald Lundevall for a budget comparable with that for Holyrood. Arild describes how the area was cleared of the homeless and addicted in preparation for the project. For all its wealth, many Norwegians don’t buy into the cosy domesticity of traditional life. The country’s suicide rate is significantly higher than the UK’s.

Later I visit the magnificent Edvard Munch room at the National Gallery. I’ve been a fan of Munch’s since student days. Seeing the original of Girls on a Bridge is a big thrill; a large framed print hung on my wall for years. Then I meet up with my fellow international publishers. There are three editors from the USA, including Minneapolis’s Graywolf and St Martin’s, based in the Flatiron Building in New York, one from Ireland, three from Paris, including the French editor of our own Barry Gornell, three from Iceland, one from India and another also from the UK. 

There is a receptions at Litteraturhuset, a former Christian teacher training college and the focal point for literary events in the city. Our hosts outline Norway’s state support for literature and translation. From a total arts budget of £98m, almost identical to that of Creative Scotland, it devotes £13m to literature, at least four times what’s spent in here. Around £1.1m of this goes toward translation and promoting authors abroad. While Norwegian publishers don’t apply for grants per se, eighty novels a year are selected for libraries. Depending on the book, the state buys between 500 and 1500 copies of each title, ensuring that the books break even before a copy is sold. 

* * *

MEETINGS having been arranged with editors and rights directors at Norwegian publishers. First we visit Spartacus, a non-fiction specialist based in a garret. Tiden follows. It boasts a prize-winning fiction list and was the only publisher to be closed during the German occupation because of its links to the Norwegian Labour Party. Cappelen Damm is next, one of the three biggest firms. It is jointly owned by two huge French publishers, a relationship that so far remains benign. A number of Scottish publishers in recent years have experienced the downside of foreign ownership.

Then comes Gyldendal. With origins dating back to eighteenth-century Denmark, it was founded in the 1920s with the express aim of repatriating the ‘Four Greats’ of nineteenth-century Norwegian literature, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie, plus Knut Hamsun, author of Hunger. It was a point of patriotic pride, post-independence that they be published in their homeland. Gyldendal now publishes 1200 books a year, co-owns bookshops, a book club and distribution business and has offices that resemble BBC Scotland’s building at Pacific Quay. Such is its scale, the central atrium contains a real-size re-creation of the original eighteenth-century Copenhagen house in which the company was born.

By lunchtime we’ve arrived at Oktober, founded in 1970 as an ultra-left wing house, but now owned by Aschehoug, the third of the big three. It’s home to Arild Stavrum and international literary stars such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the My Struggle series and Per Petterson, author of Out Stealing Horses and I Refuse.

* * *

BY train to the Lillehammer Book Festival, where Norwegian publishing decamps annually for a week. We pay a visit to the delightful chalet of historical novelist Sigrid Unset, who in 1923 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The guide tells us of her adult conversion to Catholicism, treated with great suspicion in overwhelmingly Protestant Norway, and her passion for American plumbing after becoming stranded in the United States during World War Two. Unset is revered, not only for dramatizing the nation’s medieval past, but as an outspoken critic of the occupation and also for her ascetic lifestyle (with the exception of her specially imported American sanitaryware).  

Lillehammer town is dominated by two huge ski jumps on the side of a mountain, a legacy of the 1994 Winter Olympics. They loom over me as much as the hangover I’ve inherited from ‘networking’ the night before. At over £10 a pint, Norway’s notorious alcohol prices leaving a serious dent in my wallet. To my shame I miss the first presentation of the day, although this greatly enhances my credibility with the three Icelandic editors – clearly they hold serious drinking in the same regard as their ethnic cousins, the Scots. The working day is spent in meetings with rights agencies. Interestingly, there are no literary agents in Norway. As a consequence, life for Norwegian publishers seems much easier.

* * *

APPARENTLY, Norwegian literature is taking America by storm. In April, Paris Review hosted a sell-out Norwegian-American Literary Festival, featuring the ubiquitous Knausgaard, Åsne Seierstad, whose recent book One of Us examines the aftermath of the Breivik massacre, Per Petterson and Dag Solstad. While Norwegian literature is flavour of the month, its overnight success has been 35 years in the making. Founded in 1978, Norla has since contributed much-needed cash towards the translation of 3,300 titles into 63 different languages. 

Creative Scotland’s recently commissioned independent Literature Review recommended that a Norla-style strategy of support for Scottish literature be created, including continuing help for inbound and outbound publishing delegations and literary translation. However, should this idea be acted on, expectations need to be tempered. Kristiansund wasn’t built in a day. And fingers crossed the delivery is delegated to an existing literature body, rather than founding another, as the report seems to suggest.

At a recent meeting to review the report’s recommendations, one prominent Scottish literary agent suggested a significant proportion of translation money should go to writers published in London. Her reasoning for this is that their work is of a higher standard than writers published by Scottish houses. Needless to say this is not a view I share. Norwegian literature can be thankful that, in addition to its generous financial support, it doesn’t suffer from our problematic two-tier publishing system. 


The absence of anyone other than the occasional Scottish crime writer on Norwegian language lists shows that Scotland has much catching up to do. However, a passing comment from our host, Norla’s Oliver Moystad, stuck in my mind. The current success of Norwegian literature was ‘built at home’. In other words, foreign publishers’ interest was piqued when books achieved big sales in their local market; a market, incidentally, that’s as small as Scotland’s. 

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