International Publishers Talk Turkey at the Istanbul Book Fair (by Elisabeth Watson)

Beginning this year on Saturday, November 17th and lasting the following week, through Sunday, November 25th, The Tüyap Istanbul Book Fair is incontestably Turkey’s largest book business event—it boasted over 500,000 visitors this year, and more than 500 registered Turkish publishers, agencies, and organizations. Now in its 31st year, the Fair is a production of the Turkish Publishers Association, along with other governmental and non-governmental organizations.

For the first 25+ years of its existenceTüyap functioned primarily as “a cultural festival” where Turkish publishers could “sell their books directly [to the public], learn readers’ opinions—and recent changes in opinion—first hand,” says Deniz Kavukcuoglu, Cultural Fairs General Coordinator. But as the Turkish book business has grown, the Fair is becoming a professional fair also. The biggest contribution to the Fair’s new professional profile, says Kavukcuoglu, has been to officially establish it as an international fair in 2010. From “hardly any” international attendance three years ago, Tüyap played host to 40 international publishers—primarily from Europe and Asia—in 2012.

The number of titles published in Turkey grew by more than 20% percent between 2010 and 2011, and given that 45-55% of all titles published in Turkey annually are translations, the chance to use Tüyap to set up meetings with international publishers and to buy and sell rights has been key for the growing Turkish publishing industry.

To contextualize this boom in production and rise to international prominence, many Turkish professionals point to relatively recent changes in Turkey as a whole. Agent Nermin Mollaoglu of the Kalem Literary Agency ties the expansion of the book market to overall economic growth: Turkey’s GDP growth rate, at 8.9%, was the third largest in the world in 2011, trailing only China and Brazil. Barbaros Altug, founder of the Istanbul Copyright Agency, says that legal changes of the mid-2000’s—the copyright reform of 2002 and the establishment of various TEDA translation grants—went a long way toward turning the Turkish publishing industry into one of interest for international partners.

And the interest continues to grow. Even those international publishers and agents who did not make the trip to Istanbul this month unanimously emphasize the speed and scale with which their involvement in the Turkish market has grown. Brenda Segel, SVP, Director of Rights at HarperCollins, reports that their rights sales to Turkey rose 10% between 2010 and 2011, and another 27% between 2011 and 2012. Rachel Berkowitz, Senior Manager of Foreign Rights at Crown, reports that when she first started at Crown, Turkey sometimes trailed behind in the speed with which they snapped up major titles. “But they certainly aren’t behind the curve anymore!” she says. “They’re comparable with any major European market to the extent that they’re keeping up with the bestsellers.”

Turkey’s more technical relationship to Europe—such as whether or not it will join the EU—seems of relatively little interest to most international publishers compared to the brisk business Turkey is doing in its own right. Several people pointed out that as an internationally engaged market, Turkey has much more thoroughly “arrived” than either the small EU member nations that it neighbors or the book markets in the Persian Gulf.

Along with the rise in the number of high-profile rights Turkish publishers are acquiring goes a rise in competition—and prices. “We see more and more titles being sold in auctions,” says Amy Spangler,  a co-founder of the Anatolia Lit Agency, which acts as a subagent for international publishers in addition to being an agent for Turkish authors. She and Harpercollins’ Segel both emphasize that Turkish publishers are still typically paying per print-run (which might be as small as 1,000), so that “wild advances” aren’t necessarily the order of the day. Even so, one US-based scout with whom PT spoke said that the prices Turkish publishers pay are on the rise, with records being consistently broken at auction. The same scout also reports that Turkish rights are often among the first to sell among all the international rights available for an individual title.

When it comes to the sale of Turkish rights abroad, the obvious challenges are in place—even after Orhan Pamuk’s international success and Nobel Prize. As in many other “periphery markets,” Amy Spangler says that a major challenge for Turkish fiction is the expectation that it will “tell the reader about Turkey,” such that “historical/sociological/political information contained within the book can take precedence over literary quality.” For this reason, Spangler says Turkish authors have found freer exchange in other peripheral markets—those territories which commonly have to fight against narrow, “orientalist expectations.” She sees this “slowly but surely changing, though,” and cites unprecedentedly wide international interest at this year’s Fair.

Barbaros Altug also sees bright things ahead for Turkish authors on the international scene. He’s worked with Dalkey ArchivePress to utilize TEDA translation grants for the launch its Turkish Language Series earlier this year, with 10 new titles to be released over the next five years. More immediately, Altug reported an Istanbul Book Fair 2012 schedule dominated by meetings with British publishers, due to the launch of programming for the 2013 London Book Fair Turkish Market Focus. And there’s more to look forward to beyond 2013, he says. “The Turkish Ministry of Culture has succeeded in being the market focus country not only at LBF 2013 but also at the Beijing Book Fair 2014. The interest for Turkish titles is and probably will still be vivid for the next couple of years due to these efforts.”