The EU Prize for Literature — In Conversation with Anne Bergman-Tahon

What is the EUPL? What is the story behind and what are its aims? Is there a European-wide readership? How to promote European literature? These and more questions are answered by Anne Bergman-Tahon in this conversation with editor Kasia Krzyżanowska.

Anne Bergman-Tahon — For the last several years, Anne has worked to support the European publishing community through her role as Director of the Federation of European Publishers. She actively participated in discussions throughout the adoption of the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive representing the views of the book industry. Anne is a medieval historian by training coupled with a legal degree in issues pertaining to IP law.

Let us start with the very basic question and the whole idea of the European Union Prize for Literature. Could you walk us through the concept of the Prize and how the idea has evolved since its establishment in 2009? Would you say that its most prominent goal is to enhance (or establish) European readership? 

First and foremost: why the European Union Prize for Literature and why in this format? There was a prize for literature before the EUPL: Aresteion Prize. It was rewarding one great European writer who was probably delighted with the prize money, but the name Aresteion didn’t resonate with book sellers or librarians. It was because at that level of the authors’ career those people were waiting for the Nobel Prize and not the Aresteion Prize. The commission realised it wasn’t having enough impact, and that anyway those people were translated into all modern languages anyone. We started discussing it with all of the parties in the book chain and found that we should promote unknown authors or known authors in their country, but unknown in other parts of Europe, and promote translation which is —as Umberto Eco said — the language of Europe. 

This is how we started in 2009. According to the convention, we have to cover all of the countries that have signed an agreement with the Commission to participate in the Creative Europe Program and that is between forty and forty-three countries. The bulk is of course the EU and the European Economic Area, but then there is a number of other countries that come and go.

To start with, until last year we organised juries in all of the countries, they selected an author, and the author was deemed to be the winner. Then we had twelve, thirteen or fourteen winners per year. Since last year we decided to slightly change the format. We still keep the same criteria: the selected authors have to be little translated or not translated, they have to have published between two and four books, that it has to be the last book. 

But now the nominating organisation which supports translation and visibility of their national authors nominate an author — or rather a book. Then we have a European jury composed of seven members who are from different countries from the countries that participate that year. That jury reviews translated abstracts of about forty pages made by literary translators. The idea is that it has to be the same condition as the authors would have in their real publishing life. In the jury there are literary agents, translators, authors, booksellers, publishers, and they have to chose on the basis of a synopsis and an abstract, so they are making an educated guess. That jury met last year in Paris and reviewed all of the fourteen abstracts and then made a shortlist. Within the shortlist they chose one winner. 

That is basically what changed: instead of having everybody win, we have just one winner. We hope that this will increase the visibility of the prize. We’ve spoken with most of the authors and they are fine with the idea of competition because that is something they are confronted with in their own country. I would say what really changes is that the nominating organisation would look at a book that not only is a really good book of fiction (because it has to be fiction, it can be a short story or a novel, but it cannot be a children’s book or poetry as it would just be too difficult to judge between different genres), but also a book that can be exported and translated. In the words of Andrey Kurkov, the Ukrainian author, who was also president of the nominating organisation for Ukraine, for the first time they chose a really good book for the Ukrainian audience, this time they chose a really good book for the foreign audience. I would say that is the big difference.

You have elaborated on the questions I wanted to ask you already. But you mentioned that you consulted the competition idea with the authors, so am I right to understand that competition might not be a good format for the European Union Prize for Literature?

I don’t mind the word competition, because anyway everyone who is nominated appears in the anthology and is promoted. It is just that it is very difficult to promote the visibility of a Prize with thirteen winners. Therefore, we have asked a jury of professionals whose daily work is to select books and have them translated to look at the books that have the most chances to be translated and that echo the most into today’s reality. For example, a 2022 winner was a Georgian author Iva Pezuashvili: he speaks about the war, about the reality of coming back to a country that has been devastated by war. And that is, for the jury of course, something that resonates a lot with what is happening today. But there are some of the shortlisted books that are more optimistic. 

It’s very complicated. As I always say when I speak to juries: its easy when you run the one-hundred meter, there is one person who runs faster and it is obvious; with a book, we may have read the same book and will disagree which one is the best. There we have seven people who have no relationship with the authors or their publishers, and who give their recommendation to their peers. It may not be the fairest of the fairest, but it is an indication.

Our objective is that the more visibility we give to the EUPL, the better it is for all of the nominated authors.

Because then we publish an anthology, and in that anthology all of the thirteen authors are in their original language and a translation of just a few pages is provided. Obviously, otherwise it would be a really big anthology. 

But it is not easy. It is always sad when some people don’t win and some others do win, but that’s life. The objective of the prize is to promote translation, so the more visibility the Prize has with the publishing world, the better it is. At the moment we have visibility, but we can still improve. 

Let us talk about the features that the books nominated to the Prize have to have. I saw in the explanatory part of the anthology that the selected books should discuss, broadly speaking, the European problems, and the description says the Prize is awarded for their literary achievements and the potentiality to cross borders. Would you say there is this European-ness of the books that are nominated?

That is a big question, whether there is a European-ness in European literature. That is very complicated to answer.

I would say what is most important for us is that all these books respect European values of tolerance and respect towards other individuals.

Although we believe that no nominating organisation would supply us with a book that doesn’t respect those values, it is always better when it is written somewhere. I think, and this is a very personal thought, that a book is good when it touches people who are not neighbours or close people, when it is universal, not just European, but universal. It happens if I can identify myself, if I can have empathy for the characters of that book (we are talking about fiction now obviously). I think the books that have the more chances to be selected and translated are those books where you feel closeness, where you feel that, maybe in a totally different landscape, life, environment than yours, it could be you. 

Do you think that this European culture exists, or do we still have particularities that are in national cultures which we have to translate to each other?

I think it is great that we have those differences. I don’t think we want a uniform culture like the Anglo-Saxon culture can be in some cases, although Anglo-Saxon culture can be so rich — going from New Zealand to India, UK, US.

One of the reasons why there is little translation in the English language is because they have already a richness of cultures within their own language. We have more limited scope of readership in each country, and in some countries it is very narrow: think of Maltese or Luxemburgish.

If you write in those languages you are pretty certain that very few people are going to read you, but at the same time it is really important that those cultures live and are being published and being read. 

But I don’t think there is a European-ness. I think there are either voices that go further than their own domestic parochialism that can touch everyone, and there are voices that don’t, or maybe the readers are not prepared to enter those worlds. But when you look at EUPL, we have had all type of books. A lot of books really question our world or our perspective, but I think it is fair enough for emerging authors. 

There is one thing I should have said — emerging authors don’t mean young author. It often is, but we can have people who start writing much later in their lives and would still be an emerging author.

I really like the fact that you are promoting books that are preoccupied with national languages or that are choosing mixing languages (as Tatiana Țîbuleac did in her book) and really showing this particularity of Europe. Do you then monitor if the EUPL authors are translated and how these books are disseminated?

Of course. People who follow our newsletter get news of either translation or new books from the authors. We have had authors with a lot of translations, some with fewer. You were talking about the competition earlier on. Isn’t the real competition in the end the number of translations you’ve had after a couple of years when you were selected as the EUPL laureate? We have an absolute winner, I don’t think he has been matched, although I haven’t looked at the figures lately — he is a Macedonian author, Goce Smilevski, and he had thirty seven translations. He was absolutely unknown — well, he was known in Macedonia, but he wasn’t known before the EUPL recognition and he has been translated into all of the languages.I don’t think anyone has matched him, but a lot of them have ten, twelve, fifteen translations, which is already really good for an emerging author. 

In many cases it is even easier if you come from a country which is not read by publishers or agents. If you come from a large country with a large language, the chances are that a lot of your fellow authors have been spotted and already translated – and if you’ve been translated a number of times you cannot be nominated. For example, Poland is a big country with a big language, but if you take a smaller country from the Balkans, there is obviously less. The agents and the publishers are not looking with the same scrutiny at what works in Montenegro or in smaller countries, and therefore when one of authors from this region is selected, he or she is often very successful. 

Do the organisers of the Prize consider offering awards to the translators?

It would be wonderful. When we do the anthology, we clearly indicate the translators. But it would be a totally different prize if we had to start assessing the relevance of the translation that would derive from the EUPL. I think a translation prize at EU level would be great, but it would be very complicated to put forward because it is already difficult to put forward one author per country. But if you have to look at the translation, are you looking at translation from concrete language into, let’s say, Polish. Then you have to have a jury that is able to assess translation from Ukrainian, translation from Swedish. It is possible that this will exist one day, but we do not have the capacity. What we do is keep on promoting translation. 

I was wondering whether the fact that the committee is comprising mostly of publishers, does it influence the choice of the jury, I mean the publishers are looking for something completely different probably from the authors themselves. Would you say there is an influence or particular characteristic of the book that publishers like or do not like?

But the jury was not composed mainly of publishers: we had a literary scout who is someone promoting titles to publishers, we had an agent, we had an author, we had a bookseller and we had a publisher, and publisher that publish translations. Remember that those people are from different countries. Ultimately, publishers are making the choice to translate or not, it has a cost, and often translation are difficult to sell. It is easier to sell your nationals or big names than translation from newcomers, but a publisher will go down that road to make an author known. They also know what the audience is looking for, what the audience is prepare to buy. 

Every time you put a book on the market it is a prototype, unless it is Michelle Obama and you know it is a prototype that you don’t have to test. But if you publish a European author, lets say or event the winner, you are making a bet: is it going to work on the French or Polish market? You need to have in the jury the people who are making these bets. But we also put other people so that we have a different point of view. And this year on our jury we will have the same president, Koukla MacLehose, who was a scout and is known by the entire profession, her husband is one of the most respected publishers in the UK who publishes a lot of translations. We had Andrey Kurkov who was in a nominating organisation and is a very well-known Ukrainian author.

Do you think the European Union Prize for Literature has the potential to become similar to prestigious awards such as the Goncourt Prize or the Booker Prize?

Well, give it some time — we might not be there to know if it has made it. First and foremost, it will need the EU to continue to finance it, because unlike national prizes, it has a number of expenses in translation, in promotion etc. To award the Goncourt, you invite authors from one country to read books from a few countries but who speak the same language, and you offer them a good dinner and the publishers give you the book. And that’s it. The Goncourt winner gets 1 euro 1, a symbolic euro, but they sell thousands of books afterwards.

It will always be more complicated when its European. In the future we might have recognition that we have chosen authors who do matter in literature, but that will take time too as they are emerging authors who are clearly not eligible for the Nobel Prize — even if they could one day, it will take them another ten or twenty years before they could even be eligible to be even considered. 

But this doesn’t mean that because we are not as popular as Goncourt or Booker that we should stop.

We are giving the opportunity to publishers and therefore to readers to have access to cultures that are next door but that they know very little of.

I think it is always interesting to enter into worlds that you know by the news, by reading non-fiction. But entering through fiction is making you travel in those countries while staying on your sofa. When that will be, I don’t know, but I definitely won’t be there to witness it if it is the case. 

Lets hope it will be sooner. One of the ideas to reach a wider audience that I found in the declaration of European Publishers was a strong encouragement for the national legislators to leave the setting of the retail price to the publishers. Perhaps we are too quick to forget about this legal dimension for dissemination of books. Could you tell us how it works?

Our real reason to exist in Federation of European Publishers is unfortunately not to organise the EUPL, which is one activity among others, but definitely our role to represent the views of publishers here in Brussels. The choice of the authors, of the translators, the relevance of the book, the timing of the book is essential, but we need also to have the right legislation to exist. These are different things. 

The first and most obvious is authors’ rights and copyrights, and to find a balance between the interests of certain institutions in using both and the fact that in order to have a healthy ecosystem, we need to sell books. It is a complicated matter, and it is something we are looking after. We are also looking at a number of other issues, for example: children’s books are considered as toys, therefore submitted to a number of rules, and we have to make sure those rules are compatible with reason. Sometimes the experts who set the rules don’t realise that requiring too thick paper would prevent a lot of smaller publishers to publish a book because it would be too expensive. Nowadays we have to talk to politicians about the paper crisis: paper has increased immensely, sometimes up to eighty percent, and we have to explain to them that maybe they will have to find tax relief. 

You mentioned our policy. We always believe our members know better — and I don’t want to be misquoted.

The idea is that in a number of countries there is an agreement within the book trade that you shouldn’t discount books before a certain period.

The book business is very different from other businesses because the book publishers send their books to booksellers, and the bookseller pay the publisher, but they can return the book after a certain period of time if they haven’t sold it. The only sector that has a similar approach is the pharmacy where you have to have the complete drugs that exists as much as possible but then if you don’t use them or in this case they are past expiration, then you can send them back to the drug manufacturer. 

With the books it is the same. In a number of countries it is considered that allowing the publishers to set the price, which they always do, but to have the retailers respect that price and not lower it to a large extent, protects the bookseller experience. If you are looking for a bestseller, which are the books the supermarket would stock because they know this is something that their clients might be interested in — lets go back to Michelle Obama ‘Becoming’ — you will have a big pile. For the supermarket, if they don’t make money out of Michelle Obama it doesn’t matter, because they will sell yoghurts or whatever else. For the bookshop, if they lose money on Michelle Obama, they lose margins and the margin of the bookseller is already very thin. 

Hence, if you say the book of Michelle Obama is going to be sold at the same price everywhere, you will still have people buying it in the supermarkets and probably believing to a certain extent that it is cheaper, but you will not have someone going into a bookshop and thinking ‘oh, I could buy this cheaper elsewhere’. If they want to buy that book, they will buy it at the bookshop. Our hope is that the bookseller will be saying ‘oh, you like Michelle Obama, but you may want to read the history of America, or this is an interesting perspective on the life of young graduates in the US’ or whatever. That is what booksellers do, they recommend books. They do not want to have people entering a bookshop and saying ‘oh, I want to buy that book, but I think I can get it fifty percent less elsewhere’ and therefore leaving the bookshop and not buying anything. 

There are some countries that consider their market is competitive and it works. Our position is that we leave it to our members to decide. If one of our members believes that this is the right policy it should be approved by the competition authorities because books are products, but they are not just any product. This is a very rough calculation: out of ten books, one or two are making profit, three or four are breaking even, and the rest are losing money. If the money coming from the profit-makers cannot be channelled into the loss-makers we are going to lose all of those who are one day maybe winning the Goncourt. We have met authors like that: they have won the Goncourt but started by selling five hundred books. 

Do you monitor what kind of features make a book a hit the market? Is it the promotion that the publishers give to the book or is it pure coincidence that you cannot predict?

There are obviously books that are going to be bestsellers – I am sorry to take Michelle Obama, but just to take one example that is obvious. If you sign Michelle Obama and pay enough money to sign her you know it’s going to be a success. Sometimes you make mistakes. For example, I can’t remember which publisher, but they signed Sarah Palin — she was running as a Vice President of the United Sates with John McCain in 2008 elections. Someone signed the book rights for a quite astronomical sum, but actually people were not interested in Sarah Palin, I don’t know why but it was so. In theory those are the easy books, and then you have the confirmed authors that people are following, you have the prizes, and you have the recommendation of the bookshop. There are some books that have been under the radar from the press, from everyone, and then a couple of booksellers thought it was a great book and they pushed it and it reached the prize and it got the publicity. You never know.

If publishers knew the magic formula they would always use it. They are the entrepreneurs and even if they are cultural entrepreneurs, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work, and it is difficult to know why. 

Do you think publishers should be aware of social media market, should they enter TikTok or Instagram?

Oh, they are. First, there are booktubers and booktokers — they are good at recommending books and I am sure it works and publishers are sending them the books. It is clear that any influencer, especially because television is less and less focused on books, there are fewer and fewer TV shows around books, so the chances that people are going to talk about books on television or radio are narrower, so you have to look for other medium. 

You were asking about the recipe. I think one of the recipes for success is to take a very well- known, with a lot of followers, a TikToker or Instagramer. The largest queues that I have seen at bookshops or festivals are for authors that come from social media because then they have their followes. I cannot judge the books, I haven’t read them, but publishers would be crazy not to look at what is going on and how this can help recommend books. 

I would like to end on a personal note. Would you share with us the types of books that you prefer, that you really like?

I long for travelling from my sofa. I like well-written books; sometimes there have been books I couldn’t finish because I though the writing was appalling. I like fiction, I read a bit of non-fiction but I am mainly into fiction. I will share with you my favourite book that I read this summer and which I really thought was a masterpiece. It’s by a Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov, in English it is called “Time Shelter”. I think it is one of the smartest things I have read. 

First of all it is full of invention, full of things that have not been explored – or I haven’t read – before. It is super well-documented, and I just thought this was exactly what I was looking for: I am learning things about countries that I know or don’t know. I learnt a lot of things that I cross-checked sometime just to see how much he was making up or not, but he wasn’t making up a lot of things about Bulgaria and the evolution of society in Bulgaria. Books like that really make me happy to be a reader because I feel more intelligent when I finish reading it. Sometimes people laugh when I say that: books are a bit like meditation, if I read a book and I am no longer in my house in Brussels or on vacation or where ever I am, I am entering the book, I am seeing the characters, so I sort of extract myself from my own self and travel with them and that is wonderful.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

The text has been edited for lenght and clarity.

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