Interview with Ronit Zafran, Kein & Aber

New Books in German speaks to Ronit Zafran, Head of Rights at Zurich based publisher Kein & Aber. Ahead of travelling to Berlin last month to pitch to film producers at Books at Berlinale, Ronit spoke to us about the differences between pitching translation and film rights, what makes Kein & Aber stand out as a publisher and about her hopes for the future.  

Sarah Hemens: What is your role?

Ronit Zafran: I am Head of Rights here at Kein & Aber. As you know Sarah, I have a long career as an agent behind me and it is great to have been able to bring all that experience and expertise in-house. I handle rights sales for titles across classic and contemporary literature and non-fiction including film, television and translation.  

What have you been working on recently?

A significant amount of my time has been spent preparing for the Books at Berlinale event, which took place at the end of February. We are all excited about Simone Meier’s Die Entflammten (Ignited) being one of just ten books that made the cut (pun intended!) for presentation from over 100 submissions worldwide.

It’s a compelling story and one I can definitely visualise working well on screen. Around 1900, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, after losing her husband Theo and dealing with his brother Vincent van Gogh’s suicide, sets out to make Vincent van Gogh famous. A century later, art historian Gina discovers Jo’s story, delving into a world of love, art, and obsession. Their intertwined journeys reveal the profound impact of art on two families across generations.

Very exciting! Can you tell us a little more about your experience at the Berlinale? How did it feel to present Simone Meier’s book?  

It was truly exciting and a great experience. The pitch was moderated by the wonderful Syd Atlas who was amazing. Simone Meier accompanied me which was fun. It felt great to be part of this small, select group. I also liked the exchange pre- and post-pitch between the international colleagues who were also presenting.

I read a headline recently that suggested that the most exciting script prospects were coming from books at the moment, rather than from scripts written directly for the screen. Does this resonate with you?

I’m not a script expert or a producer, but I feel that we have several books in our catalogue that have great potential to be adapted for a script or for screen.

In what ways does pitching for film differ from when you are talking to international publishers about translation rights?

Given that film and television thrive on compelling plots and well-developed characters, our pitching process for the screen involves revealing more spoilers to provide producers with a full understanding of a storyline’s dynamics. Unlike literature, where the focus may be on the writing style, screen adaptations prioritise the characters and plot. I went to Shoot The Book at Cannes last year and it was great to see the reactions to the very different texts I presented there.

What is the best thing about your role?

Two things spring straight to mind. The first is having a great roster of authors. The second is being in a pivotal role in the publishing house – so many things pass across my desk and I have a strong sense of us all as a team, part of one production. I work closely with colleagues across editorial, marketing, press and production. I also have a colleague, Sedef Altun, working with and supporting me in rights.  

What is special about Kein & Aber?

We are an Autorenverlag – meaning we are a publisher dedicated to our authors, committed to standing by them. Our ethos revolves around nurturing relationships; we’re not in the habit of publishing a book and then swiftly moving on to the next thing. For us, the focus is on gradually building up our authors and establishing continuous collaboration as their career develops and flourishes. Loyalty is important for us as a publisher.

We look for unique voices, too. With her fresh, unique approach, an author like Franziska Gänsler embodies this. Her voice is one of a kind. With her debut Ewig Sommer (Eternal Summer), she has really written something really remarkable. She cleverly intertwines the pressing issue of climate change with a specific, almost claustrophobic setting, reminiscent of a Kammerspiel. The theme of friendship and the way the relationship develops between the women  – Iris and Dori – in the book make it a universal story.

Understanding that securing international partnerships with publishers can take time, I persisted with Ewig Sommer (Eternal Summer), actively promoting it to potential publishers. This paid off – a French publisher was the first to acquire the rights. Of course, this helps further sales as more people can read the book to see what they think. Subsequent sales to Spanish and American publishers underscored the book’s universal appeal.

The NBG jury chose Franziska Gänsler’s captivating second book, Like Islands in Light, at its most recent meeting.  Theresia Enzensberger says “Franziska Gänsler is a gentle and extremely skilled storyteller, in whose hands this story about perception and truth gradually unfolds with great pull.”

With Wie Inseln im Licht (Islands of Light), Franziska has tackled a very different subject, that of the disappearance of a child. It’s a topic that stirs a lot of emotions and because it can be a tough topic to write about, the author has done so in a very approachable way, with a very personal voice and a lot of empathy.

There is a wonderful setting for the book, the Côte d’Argent on the French Atlantic coast. As the story progresses, we discover that a big secret from the past is revealed.

Do you distinguish between reading for work and reading for pleasure?

At the moment in my free time, I’m still reading through Kein & Aber’s back list titles or international titles (in which I don’t handle translation rights). At the moment it is Moa Herngren’s Divorce, which will be published this fall with us.

Which English-language authors do you admire and do any remind you of Kein & Aber authors?

I like to read authors like Meg Wolitzer, Nicole Kraus, Siri Hustvedt, Miranda July, Ian McEwan, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Chabon….etc. I feel they could all also fit our list. 

What excites you about the future of Kein & Aber and the future of the industry?

What excites me about the future with Kein & Aber is the prospect of more of our authors travelling across borders. Witnessing – and being a part of – further successes akin to Franziska Gansler’s would be truly rewarding. I’d love to see an industry that was more courageous with debut authors when it comes to rights sales.

Moreover, the international reception of Annabelle Hirsch’s DIE DINGE. Die Geschichte der Frauen in 100 Objekten (A History of Women in 101 Objects), a project and idea that we (our publisher and our editor for non-fiction) developed with the author was sold to 12 different countries, serves as a compelling reminder that that kind of nonfiction has significant potential to resonate worldwide. The book was published in the UK in Eleanor Updegraff’s translation.

A reminder, lest we forget, that women are and have always been, whether quietly or vociferously, on the periphery or centre stage, the engine, the glue, the inspiration behind it all

Gillian Anderson

Ronit Zafran is Head of Rights with Swiss publisher Kein & Aber. Before this she worked as a Literary Agent for over twenty years.