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Urpu Strellman: On wealthy markets, agents don’t sell books of over 300 pages

Urpu Strellman is СЕО of the Helsinki Literary Agency in Finland. The agency is unusual because its founders are three major Finnish publishers who decided to join forces and promote their authors abroad. Why is such cooperation justified and effective, and why does competition on the home market not always imply competition on the international market? Read our interview to learn all about the inner workings of the Finnish publishing market.


— How did the Helsinki Literary Agency come into being?

— The Helsinki Literary Agency went into operation in 2017, and we are now nearly four years old. It was set up by three independent Finnish publishers: two very popular ones and a smaller one, which nevertheless publishes prominent Finnish authors. In summer 2019, another small publisher joined us, becoming one of the agency’s partners. Things are going well for us now, and this is a record year for the sale of rights.

— How did you become a literary agent?

— I started working in book publishing as an editor in 2005. I studied literature and political science at university and always wanted to get into publishing as I enjoyed working as an editor. In the end, I worked for 11 years in the field, becoming an editor-in-chief and issue editor. I really liked my job, but when the publishers decided to set up a literary agency, I was invited to take charge and build it up. It was a difficult choice for me, because I was happy at my job. It was a question of identity, but I realised that I had been working for the same publisher for 11 years, and that a few professional changes would be a test and an opportunity for me. I was tempted by the idea that, at the time, there was only one independent agency operating in Finland. I sensed that I had ended up in a field that I could properly cultivate. I also realised that, as an agent, I could observe the editorial processes inside a variety of publishers, instead of just one. I was working mostly with translated foreign literature, and the agency gave me an chance to work with Finnish fiction. I realised that I could discover a lot, but my chief motivation was that literary agencies seemed to be a field that was lacking professional attention.

— Are you in any way restricted because the agency belongs to publishers?

— No. In our case, the model works. I see many positive aspects because I receive plenty of information about publishing plans in advance. I see manuscripts at the editing stage and can make comments and suggestions. It was the publishers’ idea to let each of them deal with selling rights abroad separately.

Although these publishers are competitors on the Finnish book market, they decided it would be practical and beneficial to join forces for the international market.          

Finland is Finland. We have a population of five million, which means five million potential readers. Publishing houses mostly deal with rights in addition to their other work, and this was not effective enough. 

— Do you work with all those publishers’ authors?

— We don’t represent all their authors, only those with the highest foreign export potential. Nevertheless, the list of authors and titles has increased sharply over the years. We work with over 120 authors, and are also building up a separate portfolio of children’s literature.

— 120 authors… How many books is that?

— Almost 500 books. We work with writers and illustrators.

— Why did the publishers decide to set up a literary agency?

— Our agency aims to provide the best possible representation for our authors and help their literature transcend our borders. The audiobook market has grown over the last few years, even though our book market had already reached its growth margin. Our future will depend on new media and rights sales abroad.

— Are you engaged in primary agenting or just foreign sales?

— In actual fact, there are no literary agents working on the Finnish home market. Primary agenting is actually underdeveloped in Nordic countries, whose markets are rather small, making it difficult for agents to earn money. Such agents must have a strong background as editors to work with texts and comprehend the literature expertly. Perhaps this will change in the future, but so far I can’t imagine us having the preconditions to allow literary agents to mediate between authors and publishers in Finland.

— How many people work for your agency?

— Two full-time and two part-time staff. Now we also have an intern, who really gives us a lot of support, because our publishing portfolio is already too large for four people.

— You’re not only engaged in business, but also produce a lot of promotional material: for example, an English-language podcast on Finnish literature. Why?

— The idea is to promote Finnish literature. We’ve been working actively towards that goal in Finland over the last decade. I’m interested in raising awareness of Finnish literature outside of my country.

Every Finnish book that is successful abroad is a success for literature and all the market players.

These books are full of stories about Finland, which I believe is vitally important. There is also the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI), an organisation that supports translations into foreign languages and awards grants to foreign publishers, providing strong support for our work. We also constantly monitor the situation in other Nordic countries: Sweden is in first place regarding rights sales abroad, though they have been actively involved in it for much longer than we have. We keep our eye on Norway because their market is comparable in size to Finland, and they are also quite successful in selling rights.

Further reading: Richard Charkin, Mensch Publishing: «Germany is more prepared to look East than English-speaking countries»

— Do your neighbours’ successes and other trends associated with Nordic countries help promote Finnish literature?

— The Nordic countries certainly have a lot in common. It is a good group to belong to, but there are also differences, the largest being the language. Less people read Finnish than Swedish, for instance. More German publishers know Swedish, for example, which simplifies the translation process. Finnish culture is somewhat different to the rest of Scandinavia, but we do have similar influences. We also have the longest common border with Russia of all the European member countries, which has affected us for centuries. We have considerable experience of the Soviet world – a feature that the other Nordic countries do not share.

I remember the year we created the agency. Back then, a Danish book about the «Hygge» lifestyle was extremely popular, after which the Swedish «Lagom» appeared, while we had «Kalsarikännit», which means «drinking at home alone in your underwear». When I was selling that book at Frankfurt [Book Fair], it was a good start for the agency. It was an ironic, witty book. I was holding a text that explained something about Finland. Its humour was slightly dark and sarcastic, and its concept was somehow caustic, which I feel sets Finland apart. It’s also a force that determines our identity.

— What about the popularity of Nordic noir? Has that affected your work?

— We turned out to be slightly behind the trend for Nordic noir, and the Swedes were mostly responsible for its success. Our agency has had a few successes with novels that fitted into the genre, although we don’t exactly specialise in them. I think the fashion for all those detective stories about bloody murders is fading, and we’re moving towards slightly «softer» texts. Such trends can be beneficial, but in the end you simply need to have good literature in order to get people interested.

— I remember when Norway was the guest of honour at Frankfurt and based its communications on the fact that it was more than just forests, but also had a great culture. In the last few years, NORLA has been awarding grants to support hundreds of books annually. How has guest of honour status affected the Finnish market and your institution?

— Oh, the preparations were immense, and I think that, back then, quite a few publishers doubted whether Finnish literature would interest anyone abroad. Between 2013 and 2015, a lot of rights were indeed purchased and Finnish books were translated.

The most important change was that Finnish publishers finally realised we also had something of interest for people abroad.

At that point, the authors became more active, too.

— What are the main challenges when working to promote Finnish literature abroad?

— Translations for promotion and catalogues are a large investment for publishers, which is a problem. A 20-page translation from Finnish to English is rather expensive. It is also a major outlay for publishers to have someone who deals exclusively with selling rights abroad. It is a big, long-term investment, but you sell the rights then await the translation and publications, and supervise the book’s circulation, but the results only become visible in five to ten years.

At the same time, it is impossible to increase the internal market in many small countries, but international sales can be augmented. Incidentally, it is a general trend on the Finnish market that sales have been dropping for the last 15 years. We have social media and Netflix… When I was growing up in the 1980s, we only had a couple of TV channels that stopped broadcasting around 10pm. Unless I was going straight to sleep, I would read books, but things are different now. For a book to be considered important and become visible, it requires investment.

Further reading: Piotr Minarik: «Publishing abroad is no money-maker for publishers, but it’s a pleasure and good for their image»

— Does every market require literary agents?

— Take Estonia, our neighbouring country, for instance. They have no literary agents, but there is a state institution which participates in book fairs and promotes Estonian literature. In Finland, the FILI programme has clearly had a major influence.

— How does the work of literary agents differ from specialised state institutions abroad?

— To make your literature visible abroad, you need either publishers with an international rights department, or independent agents. State institutions ought to work to ensure equal representation.

We are not engaged in favouritism, but work to the best of our abilities for every book represented by the Helsinki Literary Agency. But if a genuine best-selling hit does appear, then we strive to draw even more attention to it.           

Publishers also select their «top» authors and most-important books of the season, which national organisations are unable to do. This is also vital because, unlike state organisations, agencies do need to make money. Like publishers, we do a lot of work for ideological reasons, but also think in business terms. We have to make sales and do so successfully.

— What is the role of literary agents on the market nowadays?

— Agents need to be able to discuss texts with publishers and editors at the earliest possible stage, in order to refine the process. This works very well and is especially effective for non-fiction. Sometimes a theme can be expanded or a point of view shifted to make it universally interesting. If only the author and editor are working on a text, it might end up being too «Finnish» and, therefore, untranslatable. Naturally, a book has to sell on its home market, although sometimes its potential is wasted. This is also partially true for fiction, or to put it simply: it depends on the size of the book. On wealthy markets, agents don’t sell books of over 300 pages. They are unacceptable for сприймається authors and publishers in Finland, although the reason is very simple: translating a longer book is more costly. Authors may not consider this, but I think they should be aware of practical details that can positively influence the results of their writing.


With the support of British Council Ukraine


Author: Bohdana Neborak

Translation: Mark Bence