German literary agent Nicole Witt of the Mertin Literary Agency in Frankfurt represents many notable and emerging Latin American authors, such as Mexican novelist Orfa Alarcón and Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda, who died earlier this year. In 2015 her agency won the International Literary Agent Award, which is presented by the London Book Fair and the U.K. Publishers Association. A fluent Spanish speaker, Witt routinely travels to Latin America and the Guadalajara International Book Fair to network. She shared her thoughts about the current state of the Spanish-language market with PW.
How robust has the rights trade been in the Spanish-language markets this year for you, in Europe and elsewhere?
Here we have to differentiate between selling rights for Spanish-language authors and selling rights into the Spanish-language markets. If you believe what has been published in the Spanish newspaper El País, in Spain the sales figures for books went down over 10% from January to August, comparing 2019 to 2020. And the numbers in Latin America are worse. In general, this year publishers are being cautious and have less urgency in acquiring rights. They postponed some of their titles, particularly debuts, because there were few opportunities to promote them, with fairs and festivals canceled or being held only virtually. On the other hand, many publishers are telling us they have had good sales following the [spring] lockdowns, with sales almost as good as last year.
Despite the challenges, have any of your authors broken through this year?
Yes, some of our Spanish-language authors are receiving good attention, even in this difficult year. For example, Colombian writer Héctor Abad’s memoir about his father, a prominent doctor and human rights advocate, El olvido que seremos (Oblivion, or Forgotten We’ll Be), was adapted as a feature film by Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba, which was released in August. There will be a special hardcover edition of the book with photos published by Alfaguara in Spanish, and Salamandra Graphic will adapt it as a graphic novel.
The latest novel by our Cuban author Marcial Gala was acquired in March by FSG, and it is the second title from him, after The Black Cathedral, which FSG published in January this year. And our Spanish authors Jorge Carrión and Alberto Torres Blandina have new projects being published by Galaxia Gutenberg and Candaya, respectively. And we keep seeing sales for the Nocilla Trilogy by Agustín Fernández Mallo, which is available in English from Fitzcarraldo in the U.K. and from FSG in the U.S.
Have Spanish-language publishers been active in acquiring rights in 2020?
Spanish-language publishers are acquiring rights, provided the projects are exciting. In August, our author Lídia Jorge, who is Portuguese, won the $150,000 FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages. We were then able to sell more rights for her work in Mexico, Spain, and even Venezuela. Authors like Sergio Bizzio from Argentina, Boris Quercia from Chile, Gonçalo M. Tavares from Portugal, Brazilian children’s author Flavia Lins e Silva, and playwright Augusto Boal from Brazil are as much in demand in several Spanish-language countries as they were before the pandemic.
Are you having any luck with debuts or emerging writers?
The trend is in favor of well-known authors, educational and children’s books, and nonfiction titles. In Germany, people were keen to buy books about cooking and bread baking during the first lockdown, and there was also a rising demand for audiobook rights. As for us, we go against the trend and know there is always an audience for good literature. We are happy to bet on outstanding new authors. In the Spanish language, for us these are Isabel Baboun Garib from Chile and Argentine writer Fernando Fagnani, who is an editor at Edhasa. And there’s El bosque in silencio (Inside the Forest) by Spanish author Mónica Subietas, for which we have already sold rights to S. Fischer Verlag in Germany. Working with debut or new authors requires passion and, if necessary, patience!
What advice do you have for people trying to approach the Spanish-language markets for the first time?
Try to be in personal, virtual touch, just as with anybody with whom you’d like to forge better relationships. Be aware of how separated the Spanish-language markets are: Spain, Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile are all distinct. Big players, and sometimes also smaller players, are accustomed to asking for world rights, but often don’t have worldwide distribution. Try to find out about the publisher’s distribution network first and then negotiate specific territories or include a clause about the reversion of rights after a certain time should they not be able to exercise those rights. This way you can do several contracts for one title and secure better visibility for your author’s works by selling rights to locally based publishers. Not everybody will love that, but it’s realistic and also shows your insight.