La Rentrée – Will there ever be a return to normal?

Publishing Swiss literature in English and the challenges of the Covid Crisis
By Rosie Goldsmith

Here in Britain and most of Europe, autumn is traditionally the time to celebrate new publications, when the famous rentrée litteraire floods the bookshops after the summer drought.  We even use the French phrase in English! This year is the same as every year, but, as result of the Covid-19 pandemic it is, ofcourse, completely different. 

In early spring, at the height of the pandemic, books and culture were our lifelines. We read more, spent hours online, gleefully entered authors’ homes thanks to digital events, met their dogs and children. But the harsh reality of the Covid crisis was that publishing was severely impacted in that time (book sales dropped generally by 70% in the first month); individuals and companies resorted to emergency loans, or closed down; existing weaknesses in infrastructure were exposed. Surely, we all hoped, the autumn Rentrée might deliver some return to normality, to real not virtual events, trade fairs and festivals with living, breathing authors, agents and publishers; a return to browsing in bookshops and libraries (footfall in libraries fell by 80%), and to launching all those books that had been piling up in warehouses during lockdown? In September in the UK, 600 new books were published in one day, twice as many as last year’s Rentrée. It was a deluge, and début authors and translations simply drowned. Literary editors, marketing PRs and event managers were overwhelmed. With only online launches, heightened competition and fear of the second pandemic means everyone is still struggling. The Return to Normal has not happened in Britain, Switzerland or anywhere.

 When Covid-19 first struck, all of us in international publishing in the UK migrated online. It was initially rather fun. A novelty. Authors, translators, event managers, journalists and moderators adapted, discovered creative ways of communicating and presenting our literary wares. Instead of sitting in a festival tent in Scotland or Solothurn, for example, with an audience of ‘only 100’, we could suddenly address 1000’s of people across the globe from our bedrooms. We baked bread and created online poetry groups and digital book clubs, held publishing webinars, embraced audio books, ebooks and crowd-funding. We used social media to make our voices heard. We invited you to our lockdown literature festivals from anywhere in the world without having to pay your hotels or flights, saving valuable money in a very unstable situation, especially for the freelance or furloughed.

    In amongst the ruins, the Covid crisis has created some opportunities. Personally, I’ve been able to video-meet ten times more colleagues in Switzerland and the rest of Europe than I would normally, and for longer, more fruitful discussions; decisions were made more quickly, priorities crystallized and choices clearer, again: valuable in our new cash-strapped, mainly-independent international publishing world. The UK book sector already had a proven track record in digital innovation but under lockdown even those more traditional markets in Europe, including Switzerland, started operating successfully online, as well as embracing urgent topical considerations such as climate change, diversity, gender and Black Lives Matter.

 The Covid-19 lockdown in March in the UK coincided with London Book Fair, which was completely cancelled. October’s Frankfurt Book Fair in physical form was also cancelled. The “new normal” therefore is a hybrid, a blend of the virtual and the real, of print and digital. The question for many of us now is, to what extent habits adopted during the pandemic will prevail?

 Where does translated literature in the UK fit into all this (and, by extension, in our interlinked US market)? Where does Swiss literature fit in? “Before Covid”(BC!), we’d made significant progress in publishing Swiss and other translated literature into English, clawing up book sales from 3.5% to 5% of the UK market; new authors with foreign names were breaking through, standing up to the Anglocentric celebrity book culture swamping our media and book stores. Sadly, this progress is now threatened. The pandemic period has already forced most countries in Europe to become more parochial and inward-focused in protecting their own national positions. Britain is additionally hampered by Brexit and a noticeable trend to dismiss anything with the word “Europe” attached. In the absence of sufficient tangible data about our new Pandemic Book World (it is simply too early) we must keep talking, collaborating and investigating new ways. Which is what I’ve been doing.

 Early on in lockdown Myriam Lang, Head of the International Department at the Swiss Publishers‘ Association (SBVV), offered us these insights from Switzerland:

“During lockdown, publishers, bookstores and the self-employed were able to apply for an interest-free COVID-19 loan, but otherwise did not receive any state support, as they are not primarily considered cultural mediators but rather business enterprises. Now it is important that we in the book trade intensify our lobby work and to make governments everywhere aware that bookstores and publishing houses are not only commercial enterprises, but also cultural mediators.

Rosie: What official support exists in Switzerland?

The Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, like other foundations, is heavily involved in the promotion of translators and authors. And since 2016 there has been a government-backed publishing support scheme. A new scheme will come into force from 2021 to 2024. Publishers active for four years or more with a professional structure (editing, production, marketing and distribution) are eligible to apply. Bookstores, however, do not receive any state funding. The pandemic has shown that the entire book chain needs support.”

From my many years observing Swiss publishing I believe it is already in a good position to survive and thrive. Like us in Britain, the Swiss love books and reading. Switzerland is a generous, beautiful country that inspires admiration and respects the arts. Its authors and their translators are treated well. There are residencies and grants. It is a diverse, multilingual and multicultural country with a third of its citizens ‘from elsewhere’.  Switzerland is a small country and therefore potentially more fleet-footed in adapting to change than many of its European neighbours.  The brand identity and image of Swiss books are clear, as is the way the Swiss book trade functions, although not everyone knows it – yet! – it’s a part of my ongoing mission in the UK!

Recently, I asked a handful of UK colleagues to spontaneously describe how they see Swiss publishing. Among their reactions were these: Swiss books are beautifully made; cover art, illustration and paper quality are important; they produce quality children’s books and literary fiction; spoken word and performance poetry are popular; they write about nature, lakes and mountains and in this discussion over climate change they could lead; their books are shorter than other European fiction (!). Also a few queries: why are the Swiss so discreet? Don’t they want their books to be known abroad? Therefore, to further investigate attitudes, as part of my Literally Swiss activities for Pro Helvetia, I helped organise an Anglo-Swiss webinar, an online discussion to find out how much Switzerland and the UK really know about each other’s markets  and how the Covid crisis might help further change and greater collaboration.

The Swiss participants in our webinar were Yannick Stiassny, deputy publisher and foreign rights manager at Switzerland’s leading French-language Éditions Zoé in Geneva, publisher of Elisa Shua Dusapin among others. Then Daniel Kampa, founder and majority owner of the new German-language Kampa Verlag  in Zurich – famous for becoming the German publisher of Olga Tokarczuk just before she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. From the UK we welcomed two very forceful champions of translated literature: Juliet Mabey, publisher at Oneworld Publications – Oneworld recently published Swiss-German crime writer, Peter Beck – and Francois Von Hurter, co-founder and publisher of Bitter Lemon Press. Francois is himself Swiss-French origin and has already published several Swiss authors in English.

Rosie Goldsmith:
Daniel Kampa, is Swiss publishing unique in Europe? If so, how?

DK: What is unique is the fact that it is a multilingual country. It’s a small market of independent publishers and peculiar with its four languages, as each language looks for and relies on a bigger neighbour market. As we publish in German, we cater for Germany and sell our books according to German prices. There is only one major publishing house in Switzerland  – Diogenes – where I worked for two decades, the rest are relatively small. Switzerland is unique too as it’s a very expensive country and Zurich one of the most expensive towns in the world. Foreign publishers often ask us how we make this work financially, but publishing is a tough business, isn’t it?

Yannick Stiassny, how do the Swiss French deal with France?
YS: At Éditions Zoé France is our biggest market, but we also work with Belgium and Canada. We don’t collaborate much with other publishers in Switzerland as French publishing is our main focus.  We work with French rules when it comes to retail prices, which are fixed in France. So the price for a book in Swiss Francs is based on the price in Euros.

Would a Swiss author rather be published by a French publisher or Swiss French publisher like you?

YS: In general, Swiss authors are more familiar with French publishers, such as Gallimard or Flamarion. But as Swiss publishers we have strong local market knowledge and can provide greater support at home for our authors.

Do the different German, French, Italian, Romansch and dialect publishers collaborate in Switzerland?

DK: There’s not a lot of collaboration to be honest, as we each turn to Paris or Berlin or Milan – and so on. Swiss writers are supported –  and translated into other Swiss languages – through their own individual language institutions. Collaboration is not crucial for us here in Switzerland. We have a tendency to look only at our own language market. But of course I know all my German counterparts here in Switzerland and many of my French counterparts. Collaboration though is rare.

The French, German and Italian markets were badly impacted by the Covid crisis? Did that have a knock-on effect for you in Switzerland?

YS: Yes indeed there has been a huge fall in sales. However, the situation here was different from France as Swiss lockdown ended earlier and bookshops were among the first shops to open. Even during lockdown, Swiss booksellers continued sales online, whereas in France even Amazon stopped selling books for a while. Sales in that time in Switzerland were not significant, but they did continue. Now sales are almost back to normal, especially with the “Rentrée Littéraire”, which is such an important event for us in France and Swiss Romande.

What about the impact of Covid-19 on the Swiss German market?

DK: Certainly not good, but not catastrophic. Even during lockdown in Germany and Switzerland some bookstores continued to operate on the internet and in Berlin the bookshops stayed open. Across Germany there’s a huge number of small independent bookstores – 3000 – so it’s easy to buy books locally. In Germany and Switzerland bookstores were innovative, selling via the web and dispatching books with bicycle couriers or through window hatches. Small booksellers gained new customers in their neighbourhood during lockdown. By comparison, the bigger book chains were badly hit. Communities and local neighbourhoods are important for books too, not just food shopping.

Did Kampa release new books during lockdown?

DK: We released about 9 or 10 books just before. Not a good time – especially for new authors. During lockdown, readers read whatever they wanted, mostly familiar writers, not new releases. Unknown authors were not promoted by booksellers. It was a huge disaster for young authors and also for us. But compared to other markets, our situation is still decent. We’re still optimistic, but if Christmas sales are badly hit, then all publishers will be in serious trouble.

Juliet Mabey, you were part of a UK-Pro Helvetia delegation to Switzerland last year meeting Swiss publishers – what did you learn?

JM: Real insight into how Switzerland is linked to the German,  French and Italian markets, the advantages and disadvantages, like fixing prices. It was a great opportunity to network and meet face-to-face, which is what publishing is all about and what we miss now. We learned first-hand how a book market consisting mainly of translated literature operates – some Swiss publishers had 70% translations on their lists; in the UK it’s about 5%.  It’s fascinating as the Swiss also have to read each other’s books in translation. We need those book fairs and meetings again but it will be different.

Juliet, why is it so difficult for Swiss authors and publishers to break into the UK market?

JM: In the UK, not only do we have one of the smallest markets for translated fiction in the world, we have the highest costs to publish and promote a book. If you get a grant, you can usually afford it, but without grants it’s a serious problem. In Switzerland it is viable for you to publish high-profile commercial successes from the UK, such as Harry Potter or Jojo Moyes, but in return, in the UK, we are obliged to translate and publish mainly literary books, because we can get grants for them, from English PEN or Pro Helvetia, for example. And whenever we publish titles in translation – even popular Swiss titles – if we want to bring the author over to Britain for a book launch, their names are usually unknown, so it’s hard work. Popular commercial or non-fiction titles in translation are also difficult to promote: reviewers won’t review them and booksellers won’t stock them because they’re looking out for “high literary translation” titles, but they precisely don’t sell! The same holds true for our book prizes in the UK – they only want us to submit literary fiction. It’s a vicious circle. I think we need to broaden and enrich the reading experience in the UK. We need to change the perception of translated literature and support a wider variety of translated novels, not just the literary ones. Now because of the pandemic, the pyramid for books has become much steeper. If a book was already likely to sell well before lockdown, it’ll sell well but for smaller actors it has become even harder. Author profile is a big problem for translated authors in the UK and that is going to be an even bigger problem for Swiss authors.

Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press is an independent publisher with mainly translated books on its list, including Swiss: What is your experience with all things Swiss?

FVH: Swiss publishing is a great source of books for us because of the generous subsidies from Pro Helvetia. We love publishing books from Switzerland, both from German and French. But it’s a difficult business because you have to pay two artists, the translator and the author. We have to spread our costs around by selling our books abroad, not just in Britain.

We’ve published ten novels from Switzerland, and since we’re small that  represents 10% of our turnover. We’d like to branch out to Italian and Romansh as well. We have a low turnover but that’s common with small publishers. We try to discover good Swiss authors by reading the German and French language review pages, by good tip-offs also from Pro Helvetia and if Swiss cultural institutions keep providing subsidies we can edge forward.

Rosie: Juliet and Francois make an important point,  about having in-house linguists and readers in publishing – not easy when language teaching in schools is declining. But a good way forward.  Another thing I’m hearing is that it’s obvious that no UK publisher would publish a translated book – because of the competition, investment and risks unless it is amazing on all levels and they believe it will succeed. It also helps if a book fits into the zeitgeist or current public discourse, such as “Black Lives Matter” or “Me Too”. I interviewed the French writer Leïla Slimani recently – she’s been very successful in English, not just because “Lullaby” is a great book but because it is about women, motherhood, race and class and she is an engaging individual. We can’t underestimate how much it helps the public profile of translated literature in the UK if the authors and translators are engaged and champions of their books. Slimani was published at the right time in English, in the same way that Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård were.

Daniel Kampa, how hard do you think it is as a Swiss publisher to publish Swiss authors in the UK?

DK: One problem is rights: the Swiss buy translation rights for books from a lot of countries and languages, but the UK only sells rights. We have a big Noir crime list, for example, and look for talent among existing rights. But as a smaller company Kampa can look for niches and markets that don’t interest big publishers – just like when we published Olga Tokarczuk in German before she won the Nobel Prize. We try to find new and affordable talent, but also authors the big ones are not pursuing. The pandemic will, I think, allow big publishers to gain greater commercial success but for us it’s also a great opportunity to discover new authors. That’s what we’d like to bring to the UK market.

Yannis, why is it important for Éditions Zoë to publish in the UK?

YS: From a Swiss French point of view, and for foreign rights, it is very rare and precious to be translated into English. If we get one translation into English, then we have made it internationally. It means we will be picked up by publishers across the world. They appreciate the high standards of Swiss literature and production. That didn’t happen a couple years ago. Now as we develop our visibility on the French market, our books become more visible internationally. For instance, our author Elisa Shua Dusapin has just been published by Daunt Books in the UK. This is a huge boost for the author and for our visibility. French fiction publishing in the UK has grown to a whole new level: it’s a market category in its own right and we should make greater use of that fact.

Juliet, after your trip what books did you spot in Switzerland?

JM: We looked carefully at several Swiss novels but chickened out when we thought they’d be hard to sell. We decided to focus on children’s books. They are shorter than novels and less expensive to produce. We’re interested in anything we can sell. Switzerland children’s book got a lot of positive coverage when it was guest country at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair last year – it was obvious they take children’s authors and illustrators seriously. At Oneworld we’re keen to bring more translation into the UK children’s market.

Francois, what is going to help the Swiss market to develop internationally?

FVH: I’m not sure that it’s going to come from outside. Pro Helvetia is not just a source of money, but an ideas scout. We get fantastic annual reports from them with excellent intellectual analysis. Ideas will come. As an anglophone publisher, as soon as people know you want to publish translation, there will be no shortage of supply. It is virtually unlimited. You just need someone to read French or German or Italian to assess the books. Any author today wants to be in English; it’s a passport to being published everywhere in the world. All our institutions are pushing for cultural diversity and promoting Black Lives Matters, but if we want to publish those books from abroad then we must receive huge help to reduce translation costs, otherwise we can’t publish. There are models that can work. We can’t publish simply because we support ideas, we must make some profit.

Daniel Kampa, is there a new emphasis on diversity in Swiss publishing? Has this global change been reflected in Switzerland?

DK: Yes and no. This already happened in the 1960s in Germany, with the publication of James Baldwin, and there was an avalanche of books about African-Americans. Now it’s on the map and it’s a good thing. This issue is very important.

Yannis, what about diversity in Swiss French publishing?

YS: We reflect often on the persistence of Swiss stereotypes and monolithic identity but things are changing. In France they are very occupied with les Écrits d’ailleurs and the topics of diversity and colonialism and indigenous identities, whether South African, Caribbean or French-Canadian, which means they are concerns for us too.

Switzerland is a very diverse country with substantial immigration. Daniel, why do you think Switzerland’s image has changed so little?

DK: You’re right, 40% of the population in Zurich is foreign. I was born in Luxembourg and lots of my colleagues working in Swiss publishing are non-Swiss. In the past few decades we received many east Europeans and recently, there’s been substantial immigration to Switzerland, for example, from Eritrea; it’s the first generation from Eritrea and I anticipate the first Swiss Eritrean novel. Swiss authors have very diverse backgrounds. There is no 100% pure Swiss author. But it’s about changing minds. We need to read again the 1953 essay from African-American novelist James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”, about his experiences in a Swiss mountain village. He was the first black man to visit and he describes the racism he experienced. We should read it again today.”

Discussions like these with Swiss and UK publishing colleagues during this “pandemic year” are striking for the determination, generous collegiality, openness and creative flexibility they demonstrate, in spite of the huge challenges ahead, not just of Brexit and Christmas but in the future. Government support for the arts has been patchy in both countries, libraries are closing, publishers of translated fiction are anxious and cautious. For us in Great Britain, the double whammy of Covid and Brexit will slow us down, because of having to adopt new trade routes and business models and technically: up to now European (EU) rights have passed automatically to the UK publisher but after Brexit European publishers may be reluctant to sell rights to UK publishers.  

In both our countries I get a sense that the pandemic has shown that there is greater urgency to collaborate and to focus on what is important in international publishing in our two countries. With less shelf space and less physical freedom to browse in bookshops we will have to work harder to make our book covers and contents stand out – but both Switzerland and Britain are good at that. They both treasure and produce attractive well-edited books and quality translations. New models of direct website sales are thriving, as are independent bookshop orders. Working at home and relying on social media and on-line promotions cannot be the only answers for publishing in Switzerland and Britain but we both agree that there can be no “rentrée” to the old ways.

ROSIE GOLDSMITH is a former BBC journalist, writer, presenter and director of the European Literature Network. She is an award-winning journalist specializing in arts and foreign affairs.  In twenty years at the BBC she travelled the world and presented several flagship programmes. Rosie is a linguist and has lived in Europe, Africa and the USA. Today she combines journalism with chairing and curating literary events and festivals for leading cultural organisations.  Known as a champion of international literature, translation and language learning, she promotes them whenever she can. She is Founder and Director of the European Literature Network and created The Riveter magazine. From 2018-2020 she was Chair of the Judges of the EBRD Literature Prize, honouring authors and translators equally.