In 2008, Turkey was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and that momentarily gave the country’s writers and publishing industry international attention. Five years later, Turkey was guest of honor at the London Book Fair. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Turkish writers remain largely unknown in the U.S. Nobel Prize–winner Orhan Pamuk and novelist Elif Shafak are international stars, but there are few others. This despite the astonishing rise in Turkey’s overall book production, from 12,500 titles in 2002 to 67,000 in 2018. Turkey’s publishing market is estimated to be the 11th largest in the world, with annual revenue of $2.5 billion and annual sales of some 600 million copies.
“It is our challenge to introduce ourselves to the international community,” said Mustafa Dogru, president of the board of directors of the Turkish Press and Publishers Copyright and Licensing Society, during a recent panel discussion. “We have a long history and a rich literary tradition and culture but are isolated by our language.”
The panel was on international publishing topics and was part of the Fourth Istanbul Fellowship, a program that gathered 286 publishing professionals, including some 200 from 72 different countries (and the rest from Turkey), for three days of talks, panels, and one-on-one rights meetings. Invited guests included agents such as Larissa Helena of Pippin Properties in New York, and publishers including Emma Raddatz from Archipelago Books, Gigi Ishmael from the Ishmael Tree, and Dennis Johnson from Melville House.
Turkey has long been regarded as a strong market for rights sales, and nearly 20% of the titles published there are translations. “Though the bestseller lists are dominated by Turkish titles, the list also reflects international tastes,” says Ozgur Emir, foreign rights director of Dogan Kitap, Turkey’s second-largest trade publisher. Emir points to Yuval Harari, Marie Kondo, and Haruki Murakami as recent bestselling authors. “A strong-selling title might move 20,000 copies [in a year], while bestsellers will reach 40,000 to 50,000 in sales,” he says.
Emir acknowledges that convincing American publishers to translate Turkish titles is a challenge, though he has had some success in the past and points to Zülfü Livaneli, who has been published by St. Martin’s Press, as the type of author who could break through in the U.S. “Livaneli’s novel Huzursuzluk has sold 600,000 copies here in Turkey since it was published in 2017,” he says. “It is about a journalist’s journey to the Syrian border and a relationship he has with a woman there. In Turkey, we have more than three million Syrian refuges, and it is also an important topic to the rest of the world. We have sold rights in 30 countries, but not the United States.”
Nazli Berivn Ak, an editor at April publishing house in Istanbul, observes that Turkey, like other countries, has its own peculiarities. “We bought the rights to Pretty Little Mistakes, a Choose Your Own Adventure–style novel by Heather McElhatton, and it took off,” she says. “So we published eight more Choose Your Own Adventure–style novels and sold 350,000 copies of them. Likewise, thriller writer Adam Fawer’s The Improbable has sold one million copies for us. We published his latest novel, Oz, in Turkey before it was published in English."
For her part, Ak is trying to lure foreign rights buyers for two titles: Murat Mentes¸’s Ruhi Mucerret, an adventure novel that has sold 350,000 copies in Turkey, and Afsin Kum’s Sicak Kafa, a dystopian thriller that has sold 25,000 copies.
Children’s publishing also has potential to offer breakthrough books for the foreign rights market, says Asli Schaeferdiek of the Silva Literary Agency. “We have a series by Aytül Akal called Grumpie Auntie that looks at the friendship between an old woman and a young girl. It is incredibly popular and has sold over 800,000 copies.”
Children’s books are a significant part of the local market and account for some 9,000–10,000 titles published annually and 14% of sales. English is the most popular language from which material is sourced, says Melike Gunyuz of Ibn Haldun University, as it often serves as an intermediary language from other languages.
Participants at the Istanbul summit were pleased with the hospitality and the professionalism of the events. “It’s amazing that they have the generosity to do this,” says Olivia Lima, editor at SM Brazil. “It is unlikely I would have had the opportunity to interact directly with so many Turkish publishers and others from around the world.”
Several attendees note that the size and makeup of the group, which was composed mostly of participants from small- and medium-size publishers from a very electric range of countries, was similar to that of the fellowship program run by the Sharjah International Book Fair.
Throughout the program, the organizers encouraged participants to sign memoranda of understanding, if not outright contracts. Though few publishers say that they entered into outright deals, many say that they are coming away with the intention of researching opportunities. “I was able to forge new relationships—ones that were different from what I have been able to do at the big fairs,” says Gvantsa Jobava, chair of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association.
“Our goal is simple,” Dogru says. “We want to become a gateway for the international rights trade. Like Istanbul itself—which sits on the border between Asia and Europe—we think we are in a perfect position to do so.”
This article was updated on March 18 with new information.