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Triangular Talks

By Rebecca DeWald

On a bright spring day in March this year, publishing professionals from across Europe converged on London’s South Kensington for a unique afternoon of trilateral discussion and debate.

This autumn sees France move into focus as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The London Book Fair offered the perfect opportunity to celebrate and mark that presence with this series of ‘Triangular Talks’ between English-, French- and German-language editors.

Chaired by Lucie Campos (French Book Office), the first panellists – Martin Breitfeld, Alex Christofi, Laura Macaulay and Séverine Nikel – discussed their non-fiction projects. Central topics were the competition of the internet and the role of books in the face of political upheaval, in particular the extraordinary story of The Panama Papers. Breitfeld and Christofi edited the German and English versions, respectively, and agreed that they would do so again in an instant – despite secret midnight calls, encrypted emails, and coordinating four translators to complete the English version in the space of three weeks.

The fiction editors in the second panel, chaired by Daniel Medin (Center for Writers and Translators, American University of Paris), were also interested in how texts engage with changes in contemporary societies. Trends varied across the languages and according to each editor’s taste. Jorghi Poll focused on urgent contemporary questions, noting a rise in dystopian novels, while Anna Kelly pointed out the current popularity of satirical books in the UK and an intensified debate on race since 2016. In a post-Brexit world, Anna von Planta stressed the relevance of intercultural connections. She explained, with a smile, that the Swiss publisher’s bestselling ‘French’ author is the Brit Martin Walker, while their bestselling ‘Italian’ author is US writer Donna Leon.

The popularity of crossovers came up repeatedly, most prominently in the eponymous final panel. When asked about their strategies, Sophie de Closets and Bill Swainson noted that small publishers need to publish a shorter, tighter list to remain viable. Jacques Testard and Jorghi Poll both deal with this by finding a niche: marginal novels and essays in translation (Fitzcarraldo); young contemporary and forgotten twentieth-century Austrian writers (Edition Atelier). This triggered the final question of how publishers might reach new readers, with Swainson discussing the need to develop new forms for different demographics – in particular new short formats for the millennial generation.

The coffee breaks and the reception that followed the panels were full of lively and fruitful discussions among the eighty-plus guests, all industry professionals (editors, foreign rights managers, agents, scouts and translators). The value of leaving our monolingual bubbles and talking in triangles – in squares, in hexagons! – was evident, and provided much inspiration for future collaborations.