By Arabella McIntyre-Brown
“Readers have no idea how many people it takes to produce a book. Authors just write the words, but theirs is the only name on the book cover. They get all the credit and none of us get a look-in.”
The coffee shop at Bookfest is a good place for gossip. Publishers take a few minutes away from their stand to brag modestly about sales, swap hearsay about deals, who’s signed up which authors; they moan about high levels of VAT on books, about the public not realising how ridiculously cheap books are, about kids not reading, about authors needing a dose of reality, about booksellers being useless at stock control and payments.
The spring book fair in Bucharest draws well over 100,000 readers to the hundreds of book launches, debates, book signings and interviews over five days at Romexpo’s airy new pavilion. Bookfest is bookworm paradise, with Romania’s publishers going all out to entice readers to browse and buy; discounts, special offers, bumper packages and super-cheap sales lure them to the cash tills laden with shiny new titles among the bargains.
For authors it’s a buzz to see their books being plucked off the shelves and bought; for publishers it’s one of the most critical events in the year, second only to Gaudeamus, Bucharest’s even bigger book bunfight every autumn.
AN ISLAND IN A SEA OF SAND
Unlike Europe’s huge book industry trade shows such as London, Frankfurt, or Bologna, where thousands of deals worth umpteen millions of euros are signed, Romania’s book fairs are selling events, with thousands of volumes flogged to an eager public enthused by the chance of meeting a favourite author or listening to famous names locked in full and frank discussions with rivals and critics. Of course Bookfest and Gaudeamus are business events too, when the Romanian publishing world negotiates to exploit the talent in their catalogue.
It’s true that people don’t generally know how much of a bargain a book is. What else can you get for 40 lei? Two or three designer coffees, downed in ten minutes; a bottle of cheap gin, drunk and chucked in the bin. A book can last lifetimes; at least it provides hours of full-on escapism or fascination, and at best can change lives.
It’s also true that a scary proportion of people think that an author taps away for a few days to produce a manuscript, hands it to the publisher, and with a whisk of a wand, the book magics itself on to the book shop shelf. Even some authors don’t realise the effort involved and whinge that they should be getting the lion’s share of the lei paid by their devoted readership instead of the pittance they are given.
But the truth is that the whole process starts with the author’s idea. No manuscript, nothing to work with. In Romania, one of the book world’s problems is finding and nurturing new writers. Good writers. Back in the Bookfest café, one tired editor snorted at the idea that Romania needed new writers. “Hah. There are writers. Everyone’s a writer. But very few are any good.”
Alexandru Arion, who runs the Crime Scene Press, said much the same. “Of course we’re always searching for new talent. We’ve done a lot to foster young writers. We’ve run contests in schools and universities, with a publishing contract as the top prize for the best novella. We couldn’t award a prize, because the standard wasn’t high enough. There was nothing good enough to publish.”
Crime Scene Press is Romania’s only crime fiction specialist publisher; their top home-grown writers are George Arion, Bogdan Hrib and Oana Muja-Stoica, but 60-65% of their sales come from award-winning foreign writers in translation: Ann Cleeves, Lawrence Block, Antonin Varenne, Sandrone Dazieri among others.
“I always want to publish Romanian writers, but for now, the quality of manuscripts we see is not quite there. On the edge, but not there,” says Arion.
One who was – but sadly not with Crime Scene – was Eugen Chirovici. He’d published 11 novels in Romania, the first of which sold over 100,000 copies (mammoth numbers for this market) but still couldn’t make a living from fiction. When he moved to the UK, his first novel in English – The Book of Mirrors – caused a bit of a stir, sold over 30 countries and is set to earn Chirovici a seven-figure sum.
Another crime writer, about to hit the English-speaking market, is Igor Bergler. His first novel, The Lost Bible, broke records on the home market, according to his publisher, RAO; the rights have now been acquired by Trident in New York. The prequel, The Testament of Abraham, is set to do even better, and there is a third in the series coming out in 2019.
Every Romanian publisher is looking for the next Chirovici or Bergler – a writer who can sell in the global market. But unless more is done to bring on young writers, it’ll be a long wait.
BUILDING UP WRITERS AND EDITORS
Based in Timișoara, Gabriela Drasovean runs the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) Romanian group as a way of supporting writers. NaNoWriMo runs through November each year, and cheers on writers to get 50,000 words written during the month.
“Writers don’t pop out of nowhere,” said Drasovean. “They need support and encouragement. So let’s talk about it, switch from writing in secret to writing for publication.”
Writing isn’t encouraged in schools, she explains. “It’s barely mentioned. The focus is on reading literature, studying grammar, writing essays. Writing anything more isn’t encouraged.”
But given even the sliver of a chance, there are plenty of passionate would-be writers at school. Running Freemagination workshops for children and teens in Bucharest and Brașov, I’ve been bowled over by their drive to write, and the depth of imagination that explodes from them. It takes their teachers by surprise, too. They have no problem in finding ideas, characters and stories. They need to develop technique and style, and above all they need to build their confidence.
A British author – even an unknown and unglamorous one – turning up to school in person was an unmissable event, according to 15-year old Maria. “You don’t understand – you’re like… unicorns,” she said. Rare, exotic and magical. Okay, I’ll take that. And if being a unicorn gives her a push to take her writing seriously, that’s fine.
If the Romanian book world is to grow beyond the country’s borders, it needs more than just new writing talent. Manuscripts need editors, and the Romanian literary culture is not to muck about with a writer’s work. Finding errors, questioning consistency, yes. But the point of an editor is to test the book, pull it apart if necessary, and make the author change what doesn’t work, cut the padding, strengthen weak plots and feeble characters, and end up with a better book.
‘The publishing industry trusted writers, and writers didn’t want to have their work challenged and changed,” said Elena Marcu of Black Button Books. Editing is a highly skilled and expert role; if writers are ever to trust an editor to help improve their work, editors need experience and training. But, said Marcu, “Until very recently there were no editing courses in Romanian universities.”
Black Button Books, photo by Ioana Casapu
She found a writer she wanted to sign to Black Button, and was sent her manuscript before its final edit. “The author was mortified to learn that I’d seen the book before it was ready. After its final edit, the manuscript was 100 pages shorter and way better,” she said. “If Romania produces better books, we will be better represented abroad,” said Marcu. “There are not many Romanian authors in translation, but I hope things will change.”
Marcu and her partners Ana Murray and Anca Dumitrescu set up the publishing house in 2016, after some years thinking about it. “Our unique factor is illogical,” she said with a dry laugh. “We try not to put the commercial aspect first. We go against trends in the Romanian market: that short stories don’t sell, feminism doesn’t sell, no LGBTQ, thanks. We read a lot to see what deserves to be published.
“Businesswise, it’s not very smart,” she said. “But if we fail, I’d rather live with that failure than not to try. We were expecting a bumpy road, and our editorial ‘car’ is not very speedy. I would like to go a little faster, and I’d like to find new Romanian talent – we are certainly open to it. But there are only two of us on the editorial side, editing, translating, doing promotion, sorting out copyright and logistics – everything. We just don’t have the time to bring on new authors. When we are more secure, then yes.”
Marcu echoes the gossip from the Bookfest café, about what the government could do to help the publishing industry grow and thrive. “I would like to see Romania follow other countries and put a zero rate of VAT on books. And a tiny company like ours, with three employees, pays the same rate of tax as a giant like Petrom. That’s a general problem, not just for publishers, but it’s unfair on small enterprises.”
Another problem is common to many book markets, not just in Romania – the practice of retailers taking books on sale or return. “Bookshops are the only retailers who can stock their shelves without paying,” said Marcu. “How can that be fair?”
Bookfest chatter extended this complaint saying that too many booksellers used no management software, so had poor control of stock, didn’t know what had sold or what needed to be reordered, and were very slow to pay. There is certainly an independent bookshop in Brașov that looks like a candidate – the shop is chaotic, stuffed with books, the staff glum and reluctant to help. Even the shopfront is dismal, in dire need of an update and deeply uninviting. It’s easy to imagine their accounting systems are equally underwhelming.
The bright, revamped chains such as Cărturești and Humanitas have taken on a sleek, well-designed look, with cafes in store, overpriced and irresistible gizmos and gifts scattered among the books, a range of languages other than Romanian, and well-informed, friendly staff. One hopes that their back office operations are as shiny and efficient.
Authors not being paid whatever few royalties they’re owed is not conducive to getting on with the next book.
Such issues are often what puts authors off trying to find a book deal with a mainstream publisher. Marina Costa has published three novels, historical adventures for young adults; she didn’t bother talking to the big boys but went straight to a small press, even though it meant carrying the cost of production and print. She preferred to hang on to her copyright and keep some control.
“I chose small presses who offered decent support. They have literary events every month, they organise launches, participation at the book fairs, and reviews.”
Although she knew that she was unlikely to get rich from book sales, and she publishes for the love of it, and for people’s enjoyment, “but I’m frustrated that I haven’t yet recovered my costs.”
The Romanian market is not only a fraction of the size of, say, the UK in terms of population, but in terms of the amount of money spent on books. In 2011, 70% of the population read no books, and only 3% read more than 10 books that year. People who don’t like reading won’t buy books. Let alone write them.
If Romania can make reading sexy, all the other obstacles will begin to shrink. Publishers and booksellers can make inroads on internal problems, authors and editors can raise their game. But unless we can all work together on growing our readership, more bestsellers will be unicorns – a beautiful fantasy.
Bookshops to hunt out
The big national chains – Cărturești, Humanitas, Librarium, Diverta – have livened up their offer with attractive venues, good ranges of Romanian and foreign titles, helpful and well-informed staff, and extras such as gifts, gimmicks and cafes in store. But there are independent locals, too. Search them out to discover what more they can offer.
Sibiu: Erasmus Book Cafe, Habitus
Vama Veche: The book beach
Brașov: English Culture Centre at the George Barițiu (university) library
Timișoara: Librarea Cartea de Nisip, La două bufnițe
Cluj: Bookstory, Koffer
Iași: Tafrali, Book House
Bucharest: Nautilus, Anthony Frost at Cărturești, Carte Engleză, Kyralina librairie française, Open Art Library
Regular or occasional meetings of bookworms, reading and discussing a broad spectrum of books, usually over food and drink. You can sound all these out and ask to join, on Facebook.
Cluj: Cluj-Napoca Book Club (Meet-up)
Brașov: So many books, so little time
Bucharest: English Book Club of Bucharest, Bucharest Classical Literature and Cafes
The Commons Book Club
CEO Clubs International
Where your 40 lei goes
The publishing production line runs from the author beating her head on the desk to the occult process of turning an imperfect manuscript into a saleable book – and onwards through the fun and games of getting books into shops and persuading readers to part with their cash.
Bits of the publishing process that few readers see range from the choice of typeface, the space between lines of text, the width of margins and gutters, umpteen options for the paper – all of which can make reading more or less of a pleasure. Then there’s the complex set of decisions about cover design: illustration or photo, graphic elements, what goes on the spine, back cover blurb, and a dozen more subtle details. All this takes skill, training and experience – but these experts stay strictly behind the scenes. Let’s not even go into marketing, finance, logistics, stock control and rights. Not to mention the precision skills of the book printers and binders. Everything affects eventual sales, the publisher’s reputation, and the author’s career. Compare books to films, where loaders, best boys, catering staff, drivers, special effects dudes and animal wranglers get their names up on the screen. You can at least see where the money went on a film production. Books… not even the editor gets a mention. The author gets all the credit.
Arabella McIntyre-Brown moved to Măgura, a village 1,000 metres up in the Carpathians, eight years ago. She has published three books in Romania.