NorthSouth Books, the U.S. arm of Zurich-based NordSüd Verlag, has some significant changes afoot. In late 2012, Oetinger Publishing Group, based in Hamburg, Germany, acquired 95 percent of NordSüd and NorthSouth. At the start of that year, Herwig Bitsche came on board as publisher of the company, and very soon after his arrival acquired German-language rights to three of Jon Klassen’s picture books, including the Caldecott Medal-winning This Is Not My Hat. And, for the first time in several years, NorthSouth is gearing up to acquire original books by U.S. authors and illustrators, rather than only releasing translations of titles that originated in the Zurich office.

Initially a family-owned company, NordSüd was founded in 1961 by Dimitrije Sidjanski, who was raised in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, and his Swiss-born wife, Brigitte. The two met in Zurich, where Dimitrije was living in a refugee camp following his 1945 escape from the German work camp to which he’d been sent after being captured by the Nazis. After a stint living in California, the couple returned to Switzerland and launched NordSüd with a single title (The Clown Said No, written by Dimitrije under a pseudonym) and the mission to publish multicultural books by authors and illustrators from different countries. The Sidjankis soon became known as pioneers in the practices of co-producing books in multiple languages with other publishers and of licensing of translation rights. Many of the books on the NordSüd list were written by Dimitrije, who also had a knack for discovering up-and-coming authors and illustrators, including Janosh, Ralph Steadman, Max Velthuijs, and Bernadette Watts.

In 1979, the couple’s youngest son, Davy Sidjanski, purchased the company from his parents, and in 1982 began to distribute English-language editions of NordSüd books in the U.S. through Faber & Faber, later switching to Henry Holt & Co. In 1989, Marc Cheshire, Holt’s editorial director, became publisher of the company’s new English-language imprint, NorthSouth Books. Under his aegis, NorthSouth became a significant player in the children’s market with its publication of Marcus Pfister’s Rainbow Fish books and Hans de Beer’s Little Polar Bear series.

After some financially challenging years, NordSüd was acquired by a group of Swiss and German private investors in 2004, and Urs Gysling became publisher, a position he held until 2011. With the Oetinger Publishing Group’s acquisition of the company last year, the NordSüd and NorthSouth lists will include children’s books published by that company as well as titles originating in the Zurich and U.S. offices.

Looking Ahead with Optimism

A little over a year into his tenure as publisher of NordSüd and NorthSouth, Bitsche is eager to continue bringing books by European and Asian authors and illustrators to the American market, as well as to establish American authors in the German market. “One of the first decisions I made at NordSüd was to publish I Want My Hat Back,” he explains. “The book fits perfectly with my idea of increasing the profile of NordSüd. Jon Klassen’s universal appeal is obvious, as well as his humor and intelligent wordplay. But I also wanted to make sure we are not just buying a single book. We want to establish Klassen in the German market, so we also bought rights to This Is Not My Hat and The Dark, his book with Lemony Snicket.”

Bitsche is also enthusiastic about NorthSouth’s new emphasis on publishing original books by American authors and illustrators. “NorthSouth will now have more freedom to find and develop talented artists in the U.S. and make them recognized worldwide,” he says. “Our vision is to find the next Jon Klassen, and publish that author in the U.S. and in Germany at the same time.”

This is a plan very much to the liking of Heather Lennon, NorthSouth’s publishing director, who has been with the house for five years. “It’s very exciting to be able to get back to originating books here after several years of focusing exclusively on bringing great European authors and illustrators to the U.S.,” she says. “Having American authors helps us become more involved in the bookselling and publishing community here.”

En route to the Bologna Book Fair, Lennon and NorthSouth editor Beth Terrill will stop in Zurich to meet with Bitsche and NordSüd deputy publisher Andrew Rushton and review submissions for the new U.S.-generated list. “I put a call out to some authors I think have tremendous potential, and I’ve received some great manuscripts and proposals,” says Terrill, who was an editor at Random House for 12 years before moving to NorthSouth two years ago. “I am excited to see what we all decide on. Having books now go from the U.S. to Europe will really round out the publishing program. Herwig is very creative and is very good at seeking out new talent, so there will be great new books coming from both sources.”

Lennon anticipates that the company’s annual output will expand in 2014. “We’ll be doing more picture and board books, and would like to move in the direction of beginning readers and early chapter books,” she says. “We have been publishing approximately 40 books annually, but I expect that to grow to 50 next year, with the new U.S. authors and some new offerings from the Oetinger list. Everyone at NorthSouth is very excited about all of the changes – this is big news for us.”