My European Summer: Locus Article

Jeff VanderMeer • June 21st, 2007 @ 7:20 pm • Nonfiction

Portugal

Me, Luis Rodrigues, Michel Jacinto, Safaa Dib in Lisbon last summer. (Photo: Ann)

The following article ran in Locus last year after my five-week European tour. This is the first time it has appeared online.

If you like the article, you should consider subscribing to Locus, which runs lots of amazing stuff every month. If you’re wanting to keep up with the genre scene, you really need to read Locus. You can subscribe here.

I did some interviews with European editors. Not all of them have been posted to the internet yet, but check out my YouTube channel for those that have been posted.

Jeff

MY EUROPEAN SUMMER: Publishing in Europe

“In 1989, after the fall of Ceausescu, ten thousand publishing houses sprang up in Romania,” Bogdan Hrib, the founder of Tritonic Publishing, told me as we roared down the main highway toward the mountains during our first hours in Romania. “Everyone wanted to tell their story and they thought the best way was to start a publishing house.” Six years later, that number was down to around 500, and today there are around 300 publishers in Romania, of which Tritonic is in the top 20. It’s not the only publishing tale we heard while in Europe, but it is a dramatic one, and a testament to what happens when the sudden absence of the state-controlled system allows thousands of voices to be heard suddenly and without censorship.

Everyone wanted to tell their story

A tour of six European countries centering around one’s own publisher or editor and the associated social circle can only provide a subjective story about the SF/F scene in each. However, a few things are the same everywhere you go: the economies of scale are vastly different because most of the markets are much smaller than the United States, and the local writers on the ground continue to be shafted by a combination of factors, including the imperialism of the English language.

The fate of your average non-bestselling non-English-writing SF/F author in Europe is cause for sobering reflection. There is a big difference between being a fluent English speaker and actually being able to translate your own work into English. Thus, a writer can spend literally thousands of dollars trying to get work translated into English and then spend years trying to get English-language publishers interested in that work, spending even more money in the process. Not to mention, this is the only way to get interest from other countries in Europe. In most cases, a Romanian editor cannot read a Portuguese manuscript and vice versa. Both of them probably read in English, however.

At the same time, other things appear to be changing.

What is different? It depends on the country, but on the whole the idea of “cross-genre” work has clearly penetrated into European markets to various degrees, generally in two forms: the infiltration of “fantasy” into the mainstream under non-SF/F imprints or the codification of such work under a term like “New Weird”. What struck me most of all, however, was that in each country we visited, editors and publishers were industriously and creatively finding ways around the drawbacks and limitations of their particular market.

Take, for example, the Portuguese market for genre fiction, which is tiny-a print run of 1,500 would be average. We were, half jokingly, half seriously, introduced to Portugal’s “SF writers” (João Barreiros and Luís Filipe Silva) and “only Horror writer” (the incomparable David Soares, who also creates graphic novels). Half-jokingly in that these writers represented perhaps the majority of successfully published homegrown Portuguese SF and horror writers (many more are struggling to achieve publication).

In Portugal, the terms “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy” are often seen as a detriment to sales, and the most common result is the attempt to disguise SF/F as something else-and then compare it to Borges, who is wildly popular in Portugal. This is certainly the tact taken with my own collection from Livros de Areia, one of the smaller presses (despite having published Eduardo Galeano, Jerzy Kosinski, and other well-known writers).

Problems of publishing genre in Portugal also include the sudden collapse of the SF/F infrastructure in Portugal about a decade ago and, at least according to some writers I talked to, that only three decades have passed since the overthrow of an authoritarian dictatorship in a military coup (not to mention, an educational system that is still in severe disarray).

This sense of history still impinging on the literature of the present became a recurring theme, especially in places like the Czech Republic, Romania, and Germany. Events like the fall of Communism might seem as if they happened long ago, but it has only been a generation or so, and that’s not long enough for the wounds to have healed or some societies to have completely recovered from the harm done to them.

However, there’s a difference between a lack of institutional support and the full-on passion and effort of individuals, and there are many committed people in the current SF/F scene. In addition to the efforts of Joao Seixas and Pedro Marques from Livros, Luís Corte Real’s commitment to his publishing house Saída de Emergência has resulted in several exciting projects, like the translation of Alan Moore’s novel into Portuguese. Another activist in the scene is the translator and editor Luis Rodrigues, the man largely responsible for the dialogue between Portuguese SF/F and the English-speaking world through his Fantastic Metropolis website and corresponding anthology, Breaking Windows.

Rodrigues bemoans what he calls a vicious cycle: “Everything is done on the cheap, due to the flimsiness of the market and also because most publishers don’t take SF/F seriously enough themselves. So they take the cheapest books and translators they can find (usually translation students or people with no training at all), which only keeps readers from investing in Portuguese genre editions. Things are either done for the love and with some sacrifice, or done poorly, and you can’t reach critical mass with bad books or butchered classics….We have a long, long road ahead of us.”

This may be true, but my perception of the Portuguese SF/F scene was rather less jaded: I saw many pragmatic people working very hard for the fiction they love to read and write.

In contrast to the issues facing the Portuguese, the Czech Republic more closely mirrors the state of things in the United States, perhaps because it is a bigger market. Large glossy magazines dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy can survive and even prosper whether or not there is an audience for such fiction outside of core genre fans (fueled in part by tie-ins to other media). The fan base for SF/F in the Czech Republic seems relatively broad and exciting new editors like Martin Å ust are sustaining efforts made by the older generation to diversify and to build on efforts like the long-running Ikarie B magazine. (Which I remember from when there was just one country, Czechoslovakia, and the magazine had to pay in trade items, such as books of photography, because they weren’t part of the world banking system.)

Å ust may be the most ambitious and hardest-working genre personality in the Czech Republic right now, acting as a packager, editor, reviewer, journalist, and ideas man. Through his efforts, a Czech version of The Magazine of SF and Fantasy is now being published every other month, with Asimov’s SF Magazine possibly being added next year. In addition, he has edited two New Weird anthologies and a New Weird imprint through Tomáš Jirkovský’s Laser-books Press. In fact, it’s my conversations with Å ust about New Weird that have changed some of my own attitudes about the term. It’s quite clear how much more difficult it would be for Å ust to publish my work in the Czech Republic without the New Weird imprint.

However, this does not seem to provide additional opportunities for local Czech writers, as the the Czech Republic genre publishing scene is generally composed of familiar U.S. and U.K. names like Dan Simmons, China Mieville, and George R.R. Martin. Many Czechs we talked to seemed reluctant to discuss local SF/F authors, claiming that right now there aren’t many of note. (This in a country with a strong tradition of absurdism and the surreal; it’s the only European country in a recent Most Influential European contest to vote for an imaginary person, a character from a Czech play.)

This is in marked contrast to the situation in Romania, where Tritonic is making a concerted effort to publish Romanian writers alongside Western writers. Four of the 12 books in the SF/F line edited by Tritonic editor and noted Romanian author Michael Haulica (named Man of the Year last year by a national newspaper) are by Romanians. In fact, Horia Ursu, founder of Millenium Press (recently bought by Tritonic), along with Haulica, plan on editing an English-language anthology of Romanian SF/F sometime in the next year or two.

Tritonic and its founder Bogdan Hrib started out publishing mostly nonfiction, even doing a large coffee table book about Dracula’s castle.

Like Å ust in the Czech Republic, Haulica is trying to establish a “New Weird” brand in Romania. However, he’s approaching the difficult subject of marketing by using non-genre covers and trying to attract a non-genre readership.

Haulica feels that the genre label is a hindrance to reaching that wider audience in Romania: “We have a lot of readers who did not read SF before we started our line.”

Ursu agrees. “There is a ghetto, but the walls of that ghetto are crumbling down. And we have to have that happen and we hope we can have that happen with our books.”

Hrib and his second-in-command Mireille Radoi, a prominent political studies writer, estimate that sixty percent of all books sold in Romania are sold in the capital of Bucharest. There are twenty million people in Romania, almost as many as Canada. That market is about to get larger, however, because of Romania’s entry into the European Union in 2007. Until now, Tritonic could not sell books outside of Romania. In 2007, they will be able to-along with their competitors. Since there are an estimated ten million Romanians living outside of Romania, the new markets may determine who survives and who goes under in a publishing environment still in flux.

“A few years from now,” Radoi says, “there will be less than 50 publishers in Romania, but those fifty will be more professional and more powerful.” Tritonic may well be one of the top 10 publishers in the country by then.

The situation in France and Germany is much different than in Romania, because of the relatively mature SF/F scene in both countries.

France has a long tradition of supporting SF/F (and, not unsurprisingly, fantastical comics and graphic novels), with one of the strongest European conventions, Utopiales. While traditional fantasy is alive and well and selling in great numbers, houses like Calmann-Levy are also trying their hand at cross-genre or “interstitial” books.

Calmann-Levy’s interstitial imprint is the brain child of Sebastien Guillot, a thirty-something editor who also oversees a line of traditional fantasy and of classics.

Guillot knows the point of such a line is to increase audience share, but these kinds of books also constitute his first love. He fears that if released as “fantasy” they would flounder. Like Haulica in Romania, Guillot feels he needs mainstream readers.

“Many mainstream authors are now bestsellers with fantastical books, but no one is saying they are fantasy,” Guillot says. Books like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange have done very well in the literary mainstream.

“So I am convinced that readers love these kinds of stories. We just have to find a way to market the books to a wider readership. We have the same problem here as in the United States-there’s no place for Slipstream or Interstitial.” (In fact, Guillot is good friends with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman of the US-based Interstitial Institute.)

What books does he publish? Those that literally exist on a borderline: novels that readers will not discern as being too fantastical, but have a definite strangeness or magic realism element to them. Recent titles include Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird and my own City of Saints & Madmen.

Underlying all of this, of course, is the idea that in sales terms and artistic terms, SF/F is seen as a devolved kind of literature by French readers. Guillot himself told me that if I were ever published under a SF/F imprint, readers would never see me as anything but a SF/F writer, for better or worse.

In Berlin, I was in the curious position of seeing the SF/F market through the eyes of the dynamic freelance editor, translator, and packager, Hannes Riffel, and his wife Sara (well-known to people like John Clute and Elizabeth Hand). Riffel has a commitment to Klett-Cotta, a venerable hardcover publisher of fantasy, and Piper, known more for trade paperbacks, among others. Unlike in France, City of Saints in Germany has been published unabashedly as fantasy and has gotten some great reviews from major newspapers there. However, sales have been middling at best, perhaps lending credence to the approach taken by Guillot in France.

Riffel provided fascinating insight into the two major cataclysms for Germany, pointing out that the Nazi stifling and suppression of anything subversive or Jewish had led to a situation in which all Germany SF/F after World War II was “of the Perry Rhodan SF adventure variety.”

He also shed light on the East-West divide in Germany. It was clear to me that many of the Germans we talked to still had the Wall in their heads, that it still dominated in some mental way the state of things-at least, in Berlin.

Riffel made it clear that East German SF/F had definitely been different than West German SF/F, with the subtext of East German fiction “very politically charged” and with a satirical subtext. In a sense, because SF/F was considered a disposable literature and much of the SF occurred in non-threatening settings, like other planets, East German SF/F writers were able to get much more by the censors than writers of “realistic” fiction.

According to Riffel, the Germany SF scene is just now becoming as vibrant as that in other European countries.

“Not until the 1970s and 1980s did we have good translations coming out from major publishers,” Riffel said, echoing concerns voiced by Luis Rodrigues in Portugal. “The different between a badly translated Philip K. Dick novel, for example, and a good one is that the bad one will be read just by the hardcore fans, while the good one will be read by students and a wider audience.

By contrast, the problem in Finland doesn’t seem to be the translations into Finnish. The problem, if there is one, is the fluency of Finns in English: everyone reads SF/F in English editions, making it more difficult for publishers to find an audience for translations.

For this reason, translations may sometimes be taken on by the smaller Finnish publishers. This is certainly true for my work, which has been published by Loki Press, founded by Niko Aula. Loki also publishes J.G. Ballard and Italo Calvino, among others. Even George R.R. Martin is published by a small press.

Counterbalancing this problem is a generally efficient centralized distribution system and huge library sales, which at least provide a steady foundation of sales for most publishers.

New Weird hasn’t made an impact in Finland in the same way as in the Czech Republic and Romania, but Jukka Halme, the Finncon convention organizer in 2006 and an active member of Finnish fandom, has edited a New Weird anthology meant to catalog some of the more interesting things going on in genre fiction at the moment.

“There’s sort of a renaissance-barriers are breaking and borderland fiction is more popular,” Halme says. “There’s lots of stuff happening and collections featuring Finnish authors of cross-genre work already exist. But there’s all of this work by foreign [English/American/Australian] authors that we wanted to bring to a Finnish audience.”

Also providing an infrastructure for this kind of fiction is the amazing Tähtivaeltaja magazine, edited by Toni Jermann. Tähtivaeltaja‘s cross-genre and cross-media approach, combined with its edgy pop-punk design, makes it an attractive and appropriate place for Finns to find out about new U.S. and U.K. writers, some of whom have gone on to be published in Finland as a result of their exposure in the magazine. (Other conduits to the English-speaking world include resources like Tero Ykspetäjä’s Partial Recall blog.)

The Finns also readily admit to having excellent local writers, and magazines like Tähtivaeltaja help promote their work as well. Leena Krohn (Tainaron) and Johanna Sinisalo (Troll), who recently edited the Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, may be the most prominent of these writers.

What are some of the unique elements of Finnish fiction?

According to Jerrman, “People in Finland live in small cities mostly or in the middle of the woods, and they have a connection to Nature that is very important. Fantasy stories tend not to follow the epic Tolkien model but use more realistic, small-scale settings. Also, there is work that just twists reality a little bit. Maybe the fantasy is even just in the character’s mind.”

Another unique element of Finnish fiction might be the character of the pragmatic and stoic Finn, although I must admit that that supposedly unemotional character was not much in evidence at Finncon, at which I was a guest of honor this year along with Justina Robson.

Finncon, one of the largest European genre conventions, was made larger in 2006 by being combined with Animecon. The result was a bit like combining a fan and academic conference with Mardi Gras.

Such large conventions are only made possibly by Finland’s devoted SF/F fandom, which has an extensive support system and infrastructure. I was impressed with how knowledgeable Finnish fantasy fans were; I have rarely if ever been confronted by readers who knew so much about what they loved, or about my books specifically (and I am by no means a wildly popular author in Finland).

By then, we had seen amazing amount in a small amount of time. We had traveled from the oddly beautiful Masonic gardens of Sintra near Lisbon to the cosmopolitan 24-hour neon world of Paris. We had roamed the post-pop-punk streets of Berlin and wandered through the fairytale land that is nighttime Prague. We’d traveled up the Danube on an old Russian hydrofoil with metal flaking off the sides and experienced a sauna, running right from extreme heat into the chilly Baltic Sea.

The thing I remember most, though, that kind of summed it for me is something publisher Bogdan Hrib said in Bucharest when I asked him why he does what he does: “Sometimes I’m not sure I can continue, but every new book is like a new love affair for me. I love to touch the cover of the book. I love the first time I see a book. So then I say, Well, maybe I can go on a little longer.”

Everywhere, we found intelligent, passionate, sometimes driven people who loved SF/F fiction in all of its many forms. Some things are the same no matter where you go.

76 Responses to “My European Summer: Locus Article”

  1. Jay Caselberg says:

    Very pretty picture.

  2. ZeBrain says:

    The part about French SF is half bullshit, half Guillot’s propaganda. I thought Locus was a serious magazine.

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Well, ZeBrain–how about you enlighten us, then. I can only go on the information I’ve got. Seriously–put up or shut up.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  4. ZeBrain says:

    Okay, I’m a bad boy but I can understand that.
    The situation in France is indeed very complex. Yes, there’s some kind of fashion for cross-genre or “interstitial” books — like yours, which is excellent, imho. You can even gather them in a growing field permeating the limits of genres. And I won’t give any opinion about the possibility of marketing a part of or the whole field as a somewhat coherent publishing line attracting for mainstream readers.
    But, for now, it seems that most of the support this field received came from the French SF/F “community”. In fact, your novel received recently the Cafard cosmique Award; the CC site, the leading one in French about cross-genre books, is an emanation of the SF/F fandom. And if you “frenchgoogle” your name, you’ll see that most of the references are from SF/F sites. It seems you’re already seen as a SF/F writer.
    For some reasons, most of this growing field seems to be seen as genre littérature — which means, in France, not “real” litterature. When there’s an exception, the book is most of the time published in the not-genre line.
    I think Guillot is right when he says that readers like certainly this kind of books. But the barrier between genre and not-genre is very difficult to cross for an editor. I hope he will success in this very ambitious project. Working for Calmann-Lévy is a very good point, because this publisher isn’t associated with genres. But this project has still to attract people out of the SF/F field.
    That’s why I used the word propaganda. I could have said wishes, if I was a good boy. But I’m not.

  5. martlet says:

    I would say that the problem surrounding “interstitial” books in France comes from the editors, not the taste of the public. The question on whether they should label their books under SF/F or mainstream litterature is currently irrelevent, since french “genre” editors make no effort in marketing their books anyway.

    I’m a big fan of authors such as Jeff here, Graham Joyce, Jeff. Ford, Lucius Shepard or K.J. Bishop (all of them translated) but I would never have found out they even existed if I did not speak english and thus had access to english-speaking forums and blogs. You almost never see editors posting on french boards to let the public know about their books. There is no partnership with bloggers either, like we can see in the english-speaking blogosphere. So the readers have to figure out by themselves that “interstitial” books actually exist.

    I have a french SF/F blog on which I try to promote interstitial authors among others better known players, and even with my limited readership I’ve managed to make a few people discover Jeff’s work or Kelly Link books among others, so I think that if editors really tried to market their books properly they would see a dramatic increase in their sells.

    Now maybe it’s not that simple, but they don’t even try.

  6. martlet says:

    (by “editors” I actually meant “publishers”)

  7. Jan Vaněk jr. says:

    The Czech part is also wrong in some details:

    The long-running magazine is called just Ikarie, no “B” anywhere. (It published “The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight” as early as August 1990, in its third issue [together with an excerpt from The Satanic Verses; just as the editors were learning that the skiffy-starved readership wants rockets, robots and rayguns and none of this fancy Litrichery stuff, so it was followed by "A Heart for Lucretia" only in September 1995, well into the independent Czechia]. I’m not sure how much the foreign exchange was liberalized three quarters of a year after the fall of the Communism, but it seems fair to say “they weren’t part of the world banking system” for the practical purpose of sending the pittance that the magazine could pay overseas without it being eaten up by bank charges.)

    Tomáš Jirkovský’s publishing house is called just Laser-books.

    While Martin Å ust’s anthologies are a part of the distinctively formatted New Weird line (not quite an imprint) and use the word “weird” (divné) in the title, he doesn’t proclaim them to be NW, just the opposite, saying they “present the Anglo-American fantastic without a genre or other limitation” as they indeed contain much science fiction, or “traditional” fantasy; after all, see the content list (and for the second).

    The spring 2005 TV show wasn’t “Most Influential European”, but The Greatest Czech (one of the spinoffs of BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons); the imaginary contestant is not a character from a play, but rather the purported author of many plays. (Yes, it’s confusing, and the Wikipedia entry is quite poor, but the newspaper articles linked at the bottom should give at least a basic idea.)

    Finally, let me note that the negotiations about the Czech edition of Asimov’s didn’t work out.

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Thanks for the corrections. I’ll try to make them to the online article soon. In my defense, I ran the article by the respective editors, although I don’t think Sebastien had time to read his portion.

    I am a little surprised that Calmann-Levy was unable to get more mainstream coverage for City of Saints, given that that was the goal of the imprint. As you say, I’m already identified as a fantasy author.

    But I also think that until I start writing novels set in the real world with some fantasy element, instead of novels set in an imaginary place, I will face this “problem” almost anywhere.

    And thanks for putting up and not shutting up!!

    JeffV

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh–but I also have a COPY of Ikarie where it’s called Ikarie-B.

    Jeff

  10. Martin Å ust says:

    Maybe you have copy of Ikarie XB, it was fanzine and predecessor of magazine Ikarie. It was named by Czech science fiction movie Ikarie XB-1 (1963).

    Martin

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