Reading Greece is a new venture of Greek News Agenda. It will encompass a number of interviews with the new generation of Greek writers, who have attracted the attention of foreign readers and are increasingly translated into foreign languages.
As an introduction to this context, Reading Greece has interviewed* two literary agents operating in Greece, namely Evangelia Avloniti of Ersilia Literary Agency and Katerina Fragou of Iris Literary Agency. Their agencies represent the majority of Greek writers marketed abroad. The topics of discussion focus on the new generation of Greek writers, their potential and prospects, as well as the current book trends both in Greece and abroad, and the way literature can help the adaptation to the current crisis productively and creatively.
Evangelia Avloniti was born in Corfu, Greece. She studied History of Art, Archaeology and Literary Translation at various institutions, including the Courtauld Institute of Art, King’s College, London, Deree – The American College of Greece and University College London. She began her career at Sotheby’s in London and then worked as an editor in English Language Teaching publishing for five years. In 2009, she founded the Ersilia Literary Agency, where she represents Greek authors in Greece and worldwide, and foreign agents and publishers in Greece. She was named a Frankfurt Book Fair Fellow in 2013 and a Zev Birger Fellow at the Jerusalem International Book Fair in 2015.
Κaterina Fragou was born in Athens, where she studied French Literature. She also lived in Paris for 15 years, where she studied Comparative Literature. In 1995, she established Iris Literary Agency in Athens, undertaking the translation of works from all over the world into Greek. She is working on making Greek literature known abroad, has translated some works herself, whilst also working as an editor. She also organises exhibitions.
Tell us a few things about the job of a literary Agent? How demanding is to represent Greek writers abroad given that, among others, there is no longer a translation grants program in Greece?
E.A.: In my job as a literary agent I represent Greek authors in Greece and worldwide and foreign agents and publishers in Greece. Primary literary agents – that is, agents who represent authors in their local markets- are a rarity in Greece. Our book market has always been very small so traditionally authors would deal with publishers directly. This is slowly changing, however, especially for authors who are very prolific and successful and have a lot of contracts to negotiate. Nikos Dimou, who I represent both in Greece and worldwide, is a brilliant case in point. Since 2013 we have been slowly but steadily reprinting most of his best-sellers and long-sellers with Patakis whilst also bringing his new books to the market. Co-agenting, -that is acting as a representative for foreign publishers and agents in a local market- has a longer tradition and is a more straightforward affair. Having said that, it is a very demanding job as competition is rife and our market is far from healthy.
Representing Greek authors internationally is a relatively recent development in Greek agenting. It requires a lot of hard work on the part of the agent, an excellent network of international contacts, participation in all major books fairs and last but not least high-quality books with international appeal accompanied by the appropriate promotional material (including very good sample translations) in English. A translation grant programme would have helped enormously in our efforts, of course, but given the current state of affairs in Greece we cannot but be resilient and resourceful and continue operating without a support system.
K.F.: A literary agent presents the work of authors to publishers, aiming for their publication. Being a literary agent for Greek authors 20 years now – and for 15 years I was the only one with an annual catalogue and presence at international book fairs – I can assure you that, since one cannot make a living on this, you have to really love this job. You have to fight, to be patient and to wait. It’s a Don Quichotte kind of situation. (The first author published after I presented his work abroad was Christos Chomenidis but it was with Petros Markaris that I had success in more than one countries).
However, being a literary agent means also representing authors in their own country. Since 2002, I was also the first literary agent for Greek authors inside Greece, and this is a satisfying job, as I am working closely with authors from their very first steps. It is very exciting to discover new talent.
It has always been difficult representing Greek authors abroad, as there are only a few readers of Greek, few translators, and feeble interest from the publishers. And prior to that, you have to be accepted by Greek publishers and authors, as well as the choices you make for the grants, which is a really lonely and uneasy situation lots of times. Obviously, the agent, the publishers and the authors have to finance the translation of extracts, a first and necessary step to an author’s presentation abroad. You then have to convince foreign publishers as to the importance of Greek voices and points of view. This is not easy at all, especially because of an inexistent national book promotional strategy. The absence of a translation fund or any other kind of assistance in the marketing of the authors is a huge disadvantage, especially if we compare to the Dutch or Turkish market (just an example of a small language or unknown production). Especially in Turkey, subventions depend not only on the Ministry of Culture, but also Foreign Affairs; the promotion of their culture is a Foreign Affairs and Diplomacy matter.
What kind of books are in demand nowadays? Is there a general trend both in Greece and abroad?
E.A.: Trends are fickle things. They are notoriously difficult to predict and once you get your head around them they are already outdated. This is not to say that they are necessarily a bad thing. The Harry Potter series made millions of children fall in love with books and literature. Fifty Shades of Grey saved many international publishers from financial difficulties and Scandinavian crime fiction turned translated literature into a star on its own right, which in turn paved the way for the wonders of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. I think that if there is a consistent and upward trend in international publishing right now it is translated literature. According to statistics from Nielsen Book, in 2015 sales of translated literature represented 5% of all fiction sold in the UK (a country notoriously resistant to translations), which is a 69% rise since 2001. The numbers are still low, of course, but translated books are growing in importance, which is happily opening up more windows for international literature, and subsequently for Greek authors, in our increasingly globalized world.
K.F.: Crime fiction, bestsellers and new ideas in general. In recent years we also have a slight return to quality, especially in the Greek market. And of course everyone is looking for the next small country that will be commercially successful (as e.g. Scandinavian countries).
It has been claimed that Greek literature abroad is perceived in a highly stereotyped way (Zorba the Greek, Greece as a holiday destination and so on)? How easy is for the new generation of Greek writers to challenge such stereotypes?
E.A.: When I think of stereotypes, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s famous quote always comes to mind: “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” There is no doubt that that the story of Greece as a (crisis-stricken) holiday destination is a true one. However, it is not the only one and it rests upon us Greeks to challenge and enrich it with other narratives. Luckily, there is a wealth of Greek authors out there, writing in Greece and abroad, who challenge traditional stereotypes presenting us with a wealth of high-quality alternative narratives. The question is can these different narratives find the recognition they deserve in Greece? Does the Greek literary establishment support them? I believe that only when these stories are appreciated and encouraged locally, will they stand a chance of being taken seriously internationally.
K.F.: This stereotype is a rather old one. What a Greek cannot defeat is being Greek. And this is his/her first feature. So, he has more chances to be translated if he writes about Greece and not the States, Paris or Berlin; even if he knows them well. At the same time, Shunyata by Christos Chryssopoulos, which is about a village in the States in the 50s, has been translated in the US and France. No rules J.
Due to the economic crisis, the Greek book market is slowly sinking, while following the closure of the National Book Center (EKEBI) in 2013, there is no coherent national book strategy. How things stand at the moment?
E.A.:I like to think that the problems following the July 2015 referendum, -which are the worst we have experienced in Greek publishing since the beginning of the financial crisis-, will hopefully not be repeated. Back then, as I wrote in an article for Publishing Perspectives, “the turnover for Greek bookshops (fell) by 50–80%; Greek publishers report(ed) that their turnover slipped by 80% and their production by almost 90% in the month of July.” Recently the closure of the Papasotiriou bookshop chain dealt another hard blow to our ailing book market, but thankfully this time publishers were a little better prepared for it. Right now, given the precarious state of our economy, all of us in the Greek publishing world are fighting for survival. What fills me with joy in these difficult times are the passion, perseverance and resilience I come across daily in my dealings with publishers, authors, fellow agents and booksellers. And the fact that a brave new generation of publishers and booksellers have been steadily emerging injecting the Greek book market with optimism, new life and hope for the future.
K.F.: The Greek book market has a lot of internal problems, one of them being the lack of communication and understanding between publishers. A national book strategy is needed to help Libraries, publishers, the evolution of readership and to protect authors from losing income because of the internet or just internal market issues. As regards international book strategy, we have to discuss and exchange knowledge about ideas produced, points of view of Greek authors and select authors who could be representative and thus exported. We have to empower and market our authors. For the moment, there is action only from literary agents and some publishers. In my knowledge, no Greek publisher has today an inhouse foreign rights department.
Would you say that crisis has also renewed interest in the country and has offered a fresh chance for Greek books to read outside Greece? Is there a way to adapt to the crisis productively and creatively?
E.A.:If there’s been a good thing about the economic crisis is that it has renewed interest in the country and has offered a fresh chance for Greek books to be read outside of Greece. I witnessed this first-hand when I attended my first London and Frankfurt Book Fairs back in 2011. Greece was in the first throes of the economic crisis and interest in the country was high. German rights to On the Unhappiness of Being Greek by Nikos Dimou were sold on the spot in Frankfurt whereas Something Will Happen You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou prompted a feverish auction between a German and a Swiss publisher. Subsequently, On the Unhappiness of Being Greek became a bestseller in Germany and both books went on to be translated into nine and six languages respectively receiving glowing reviews, which speaks volumes about the potential of Greek authors internationally.
I strongly believe that promoting high-quality Greek books in Greece and abroad is one of the many ways we can adapt to the crisis productively and creatively. However, it is important that we do not make the economic crisis the single story about Greece. There is a wealth of different narratives out there which deserve to be better known locally and internationally. My aim as a literary agent is to continue challenging stereotypes and ‘the single story’, and to keep building bridges between Greece and the rest of the world through literature.
K.F.:Crisis is a positive factor in bringing about interest in Greek Literature, but for the time being, foreign publishers are focusing on what crisis means in everyday life. Even books written before 2008 are being translated now, all of them seen in the crisis perspective, even if they don’t really refer to it. But I have to say that foreign publishers have begun thinking on the marketing perspective of crisis even if the books don’t refer to it. And this is an opportunity that we have to use now.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou