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Literary Agents and the Arab World [ADIBF 2010]

Over the next day and a half, while everyone watching basketball I’m going to repost a number of the things that I wrote for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The ADIBF is the premiere professional fair for the Arab world, thanks in part to an arrangement with the Frankfurt Book Fair. Everyone involved with the ADIBF is amazing, and the events, opportunities, meetings, etc., are all really interesting. And being able to see Abu Dhabi and Dubai is fascinating in and of itself.

In order to further promote Arabic literary culture throughout the rest of the world, there needs to be more literary agents representing Arab writers, and there needs to be some sort of translation subvention program in place to support foreign publishers interested in these titles.

Those were the two key points that came out of the “Agents—How They Operate, How to Cooperate” professional panel that took place this afternoon and featured Ira Silverberg of Sterling Lord Literistic (USA), Nermin Mollaoglu of Kalem Agency (Turkey), Anna Soler-Pont of Pontas Agency (Spain), and Lucien Leitess of Unionsverlag (Switzerland).

The first half of the panel was spent on the basics—how to approach an agent (don’t be persistently pushy, try and meet them at book fairs), the role of an agent (to serve as a bridge between authors and publishers), the benefits of an agent (multitude of connection and a certain power due to the large number of clients represented)—with the latter part becoming both more theoretical and specific, as the esteemed panelists took questions from the audience.

Some of these questions were rather challenging. It’s no secret that there are occasionally tensions between publishers, agents, and translators, especially in today’s book publishing world. Nevertheless, the value of a good agent can not be over-stated. As Anna Soler-Pont pointed out, the main function an agent fulfills is the ability to sort through tons of books and authors, picking out the ones that are most worthy and bringing them to the attention of the proper publishers. Agents act as a sort of filter and information clearinghouse—something that’s absolutely crucial when it comes to regions like the Arab world, where there is no cultural organization responsible for specifically promoting Arabic literature abroad.

This became a big point of discussion, since the vast majority of European countries either have “book offices” or strong literary agencies that work to make international publishers aware of the best works being written in their country. The existence of these organizations has a huge impact on getting books translated and published all over the world. Frequently, these agencies are paired with translation subsidy programs—generally paid for by the government—that provide foreign publishers with the funds necessary to pay translators.

Turkey is a perfect case in point for how this can work. As Lucien Leitess explained, five years Turkey had no literary agents or subvention scheme. Enter Nermin Mollaoglu. In the four years since setting up the Kalem Agency and helping with the implementation of the translation funding program, Nermin has arranged more than 600 rights deals all of the world.

Ira Silverberg—who worked for an independent publisher before becoming an agent—referred on a few occasions to the idea of a “literary ecosystem” made up of diverse parts: authors, translators, agents, publishers, funding organizations, booksellers, and the like. For this ecosystem to remain as healthy as possible, all of these pieces have to work together. It’s absolutely the case that the Arab world has an amazing wealth of great literature, but for these works to reach as large of a worldwide readership as possible, more Arab authors and publishers need to start working with agents, and either the governments or some philanthropic organization needs to put up some money to support translations out of Arabic.

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