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Tatjana Zoldnere: The face of the Ukrainian market has altered, and I hope it’s permanent

Tatjana Zoldnere is a name known to almost every publisher working with translated literature. Since 1998, with her journalistic and literary translation experience, Tatjana has been director of the international literary agency Andrew Nurnberg Association Baltic, which handles publishing rights in the Baltic region, Ukraine, and Georgia, and is continuously expanding. We spoke to Tatjana about how national markets form, varying tastes in different countries, and where to start when buying or selling rights.


— Tatjana, you work with the Baltic department of the Andrew Nurnberg Association, but are also famous outside the Baltic region, especially in Ukraine. Which countries do you cover?

— We work with all the former Soviet Union countries, except Russia and Moldova (which is represented by colleagues from Romania). As with Lithuania and all the Baltic states, we began working with Ukraine 17 years ago, exclusively with Ukrainian-language books. We started out with just a few titles, no more than 5 or 10.

Back then, no publishers were interested in buying literature to translate into Ukrainian, so major Russian publishers would export their books to Ukraine. That was how all important authors were represented on the Ukrainian market. But in 2014–2015, this trend changed radically due to the political situation, and publishers took the strategic step of embracing the Ukrainian language to counteract Russian.

The face of the Ukrainian book market has completely altered, and I hope it’s permanent.

Nowadays, around 90% of the Ukrainian publishers we know are producing translations.

Did your number of Ukrainian partners change before and after 2014?

— Of course, the figures were completely different before and after 2014. At first, we were cooperating with one publisher, Folio, then a few years later our partners expanded to three, when we added Klub Simeinoho Dozvillia and KM-Books. Since then, the number of Ukrainian publishers has grown rapidly.

Every month, we receive a request from at least one new Ukrainian publisher.

The book market is very large indeed.

— I know that you mainly work with rights for superstar authors, but do you represent new voices, too?

— We work with many different authors, not just Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer, but also newcomers. But it’s always risky for publishers to release debut writers, and the rights for books by more commercially successful authors always sell more quickly. In Ukraine, we sell a lot of fiction, such as books by the Nobel-prize-winning Olga Tokarczuk, or T. S. Eliot.

— Of course it’s less risky, and during the pandemic everyone has been trying to avoid risks, as we know.

— The trends didn’t change much during the pandemic. Ukrainian publishers are mostly interested in quality non-fiction and fiction, exclusive fiction by women writers, and children’s books. But when publishing was halted last March and April due to COVID-19, they waited to see what would happen. Everyone was doubtful.

Fortunately, the situation wasn’t as tragic for our agency as for the live music industry, for example. Books were one of the last forms of entertainment during those tough times. On the whole, I think book sales weren’t so strongly affected by the pandemic. Of course, sales fell in Ukraine because the bookshops were closed for a long time; much longer than in Lithuania or Estonia.

But after the lockdown, publishers grew active again, particularly small and medium-sized ones, who were interested in all new titles.

Compared to 2019, our book-rights sales didn’t really drop in 2020, and remained approximately the same.

Do rights sales fluctuate seasonally in Ukraine? How strongly is your work dependent on whether book fairs are held or not?

— Normally, we sell most rights before the Book Arsenal Festival, and it was a great pity that it wasn’t held last year. Book Arsenal is definitely one of my favourite fairs after the Vilnius Book Festival, which I always say everyone ought to visit in order to experience the true spirit of a book fair – it’s highly inspirational. It has so many visitors, you can only move around freely on day one, during the professional programme, and on subsequent days it’s extremely hard to get about. It’s almost the same at the Book Arsenal: crowds of people who are all interested and involved in the book world. I was also looking forward to it this year.

Of course, we regularly use Zoom, have online meetings with our publishers, and keep in constant phone and email contact, so our work hasn’t really changed all that much.

How do you initiate a partnership?

— First of all, we have something like a standard questionnaire for new publishers, in order to understand how active they are, what they aim to achieve, and what translations they’ve already published. But we won’t immediately sell the rights to ten books to a publisher we’ve only just begun working with: we offer them two or three titles at first, to see how they cope with them.

As a large, well-known agency, you probably don’t search for new partners, and they approach you. How does that work?

— The world of book rights is tiny, but there is a multitude of rights holders. Everyone knows each other and who is who. And if someone is looking for agents in our area, they come to us with a list of authors we might be able to promote in the region.

Usually, we examine the list of authors and try to understand if we can help sell them, because lists can vary greatly. If we approve a list, we can discuss where they might be sold, e.g. exclusively in the Baltic region, or the Baltic region plus Ukraine, etc.

Could you highlight the regions which are most important for you?

— Ukraine and Georgia are currently important markets, because they buy a lot of rights. Of course, some rights holders have historical links with various other agents, or prefer to handle those territories personally, without involving agents. We also discuss terms and receive the full package of documents, or just ones for specific areas. When we receive the rights, we inform our publishers all across the book market, as well as new clients who might be interested.

Presumably, not all proposals and publishers are of interest. How big must a print run be for you to consider a proposal?

— We are open to everything, but it depends whether a publisher is prepared to pay the required minimum in advance. The Estonian market is very small, for example, and sometimes they print 200–300 copies. Therefore we place no restrictions on print runs.

What does a «small market» imply for you?

— Speaking of small-language markets, first and foremost it concerns the number of copies and price of the book. Obviously, the Estonian market is small, under 700 copies. I would say that markets with average circulations not exceeding 1000–3000 copies can be considered small, and will remain small until 10,000 copies of one title have been sold.

A small market typically implies an average print run of 2000–3000 copies. It will remain small until 10,000 copies of one title have been sold.

It’s no secret that the current print-run situation in Ukraine is not very optimistic.

— A lot less copies are published in Ukraine, although authors often expect things to be like in Germany or Poland, whose populations are comparable to Ukraine, yet have much larger print runs and more progressive markets.

The Ukrainian book market is rather small, but I have faith in the younger generation who will choose books not in Russian, but mostly in Ukrainian. We’re hoping that the Ukrainian book market will expand.

How would you describe working with such small, emerging markets? Are they in any way different?

— Every market usually develops in a fairly typical way. At first, they always release «big names», because foreign publishers mostly start with them anyway: people want Dan Brown and Stephen King. It’s the most logical place to begin, because if they’ve «taken off» on other markets, they also have good prospects at home. That’s the logic behind it.

Problems arise when those authors have already been published and one must decide whom to choose next. Most often, after the commercially successful authors, publishers turn to classic literature – William Golding and Kurt Vonnegut, or books they remember as being hugely popular in the Soviet days.

Then they select those we call the non-fiction backlist of authors, who were popular 10–15 years ago but have never been translated into the local language. For example, Jim Collins was popular in the 2000s, but never translated into certain local languages. The same goes for Robert Cialdini and Seth Godin.

In order to publish worldwide bestsellers, a book market has to have been operating constantly for around 5–10 years. Until then, the publishers try to release this whole backlist of common must-have titles that have never appeared in their native language.

So, things are almost the same on every market?

— Each market usually has its own specifics, but they all choose roughly the same authors. That way we can understand at which stage each market is: are they publishing the big bestsellers, or have they moved into non-fiction? Then the publishers’ interests switch to commercial fiction titles.

It’s fascinating to observe the Georgian book market, for example, which has little interest in mass literature. They are keen on fiction and high-quality non-fiction. And the Latvian book market contains a high percentage of commercial literature. We suffer, as it’s extremely hard to sell fiction there.

It’s easier for us to sell rights for the 2019 Nobel-prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk, for example, to any other market than Latvia. The same applies to the rights for Booker Prize winners – they sell well everywhere, but almost never in Latvia.

Let’s talk about Ukrainian authors. There are none in your catalogue – do you find them uninteresting from a professional viewpoint, how they run the business, or is it because they would require major investment at this stage?

— I wouldn’t describe Ukrainian authors as «uninteresting», because it’s more a matter of getting involved in a complex, cooperative network. It’s not like working with local publishers, but closer to dealing directly with rights holders.

It takes a long time for an author to go beyond the bounds of their local market, and that applies not only to Ukrainian authors.

We only sell 10% of rights, which is common practice for all agencies.

I know plenty of successful Estonian authors whose rights are bought by many foreign publishers, but they have been working at it for 20 years and have made excellent connections. Estonians try to «export» nearly all of their writers. They work closely with them and prepare texts (i.e. excerpts, synopses – Author) in English or German, which is vital, or else no one would ever read them. It’s constant hard work over the course of many years.

What advice could you give authors and rights holders wishing to go beyond their own markets?

— I would advise them not only to look towards the English or American book markets, but to those of their closest neighbours, too. It would be much more effective to start with smaller markets, then move into larger ones. Obviously, the British market will always be less open to authors in translation, and foreign authors are poorly represented there. The same can be said of the American market. But Germany is more open, and one can find more translated literature.

How many translations are needed to become visible to markets you’d like to move into?

— If a book has been published in ten languages, even in small countries, then Italian publishers, for example, will definitely be interested. Even if a book comes out in five languages, it has greater chances of getting noticed by publishers.

If we have an author whose rights have already been sold in 25 countries, we can definitely sell them. We usually start from about 10–15 languages. Initially, we sell the author in the Baltic states, then Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc.

The number of translations into foreign languages is important not only for our agency, but also for the publishers buying the rights. The publishers’ logic is: if 15 publishers worldwide have chosen a title, they must know what they’re doing. Prizes and awards also help publishers to select authors.

How is the Ukrainian book market different?

— What we like most about the Ukrainian market is its Ukrainian national identity. You have a clear vision of what you want. You don’t float around, staring, wondering whether to choose this or that. You know exactly what you want to publish, which we appreciate immensely. What’s more, your publishers already have the option to purchase world bestsellers immediately. That’s a huge development.

Ukrainian publishers have a clear vision of what they want to publish, how to publish it, how many copies are required per year, and what the book should contain. In business terms, when we meet Ukrainian publishers, they have their own understanding of what the market is, and what it can offer them. I think the Ukrainian market could grow in just a few years, because its publishers have well-thought-out plans.


With the support of British Council Ukraine


Author: Iryna Baturevych

Translation: Mark Bence