American literature continues to command attention around the world, even if it seems to many abroad that Americans are not so interested in foreign works. Perhaps because of its position as the largest publishing market in the world, the U.S. has not been featured as a “guest of honor” country at any of the major international book fairs in years. Occasionally, you might see the U.S. embassy in a country sponsor a booth, as it did for several years at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair in the mid-2010s—though the only objects on display at that time were Amazon Kindle devices and iPads showcasing e-books.
“The U.S. doesn’t need to promote its literature abroad; everyone already buys rights to its books,” said one director at a recent fair who wished to remain anonymous. “Furthermore, who would we even ask to fund and run the project? The Association of American Publishers is not involved with promoting literature abroad and, when it comes to issues outside the U.S., primarily seems concerned with policing copyright infringement.”
Still, book fairs are finding ways to highlight works from the U.S. This year’s Thessaloniki Book Fair, the main professional publishing event for Greece, which ran May 4–7, featured “American literature” as the guest of honor. The program was sponsored by the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, and, as a result, the Combined Book Exhibit hosted a booth featuring books from more than 20 U.S. publishers, including Abrams Books, Insight Editions, Penguin Random House, Quarto Group, Sourcebooks, and Yale University Press. American authors who took part included Claire Messud, Saskia Vogel, James Wood, and Nell Zink. European authors who were at the fair included the 2023 International Booker Prize winner Georgi Gospodinov, from Bulgaria. Greek authors ranged from bestsellers, such as children’s author Katerina Kris, to emerging talents like Alexandra K*, author of Things the Virgin Mary Thinks While Smoking Hidden in the Bathroom, a graduate of International Writing program at the University of Iowa.
The Thessaloniki Book Fair, under the guidance of fair director Nopi Chatzigeorgiou, has made a push to engage more deeply with the international community and this year implemented its first professional fellowship program and launched a rights center. Two rights professionals representing U.S. companies participated: literary agent Chrysothemis Armefti from the 2 Seas Agency, based in Ojai, Calif., and senior rights manager Michela Pea from Insight Editions. Both are based in Europe: Armefti is from Cyprus and Pea is Italian and lives in Lisbon. Another American, Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs, represented the Deborah Harris Agency, which is headquartered in Tel Aviv.
The professional program in Thessaloniki offered panels touching on topics directly relevant to Americans, including book bans and the market for literary translations, particularly in the U.S. Several Greek authors and publishers cited the dearth of literary agents working in the country as an impediment to selling more rights. At present, only Catherine Fragou of the Iris Literary Agency and Evangelia Avlioniti of the Ersilia Literary Agency are representing Greek authors to the international market.
“We have a large number of extraordinary writers who are as yet unknown around the world, but whose books have global appeal,” Chatzigeorgiou said. “Our hope is the fellowship program fostered more international networking and business. And having American literature as the guest of honor made for a successful collaboration, a new cultural and business bridge between the U.S. and Greece.”
Maybe it’s the start of a trend. Getafe Negro, a crime and horror writing festival in Madrid, will have the U.S. as the guest of honor at this year’s event, which takes place October 20–29. Festival director Maica Rivera said the fair secured the support of the U.S. embassy in Spain to bring an author over (that author has yet to be selected). “We wanted to go back to where noir literature started, which was the U.S., with writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, and Jim Thompson,” Rivera said. The hardest part, she added, was getting U.S. authors interested and involved, as many simply didn’t know the fair.
Krista Kaer, program director of Head Read in Tallinn, Estonia, said that she, too, feels that American publishers and writers are unaware of some of the opportunities open to them to promote their work abroad. Head Read, an Estonian phrase that translates as “good lines,” is an annual literary festival that takes place in the events space above the Estonian Writer’s Union in Tallinn. This year’s event ran May 24–28 and featured some 50 writers, including U.K. authors Anthony Horowitz and Kate Mosse, Spain’s Javier Cercas, and Iceland’s Andri Snaer Magnuson, alongside a coterie of Estonian authors, including Eero Epno, Lilli Luuk, and children’s writer Anti Saar. “Everyone is treated the same,” Kaer said, “whether they are a debut poet or a superstar, which is something I think everyone appreciates.”
The Head Read events routinely draw 50 or more people each, and each is broadcast on video screens visible from the city’s main pedestrian squares. This year’s most popular author was exiled Russian Mikhail Shishkin, who spoke about the war in Ukraine. “I would say that the fact we are doing this interview in English, instead of Russian, says all you need to know about how I and the world feel about it,” Shishkin said to the packed room, with an overflow of several hundred more in the street.
“Estonian writing is still a mystery to many, with only a modest number of works reaching English-speaking audiences,” said Kerti Tergen, director of foreign affairs for the Estonian Literature Center (Elic). She noted that the center offers generous professional and financial support for publishers looking to translate books from Estonian. Among the most popular Estonian writers in English is Jaan Kross, who has been published by Maclehose Press and Vagabond Voices, an independent publisher based in Glasgow. The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk was also a hit for Grove.
Sometimes, Elic’s translation efforts lead to unexpected cultural exchanges, such as the translation of Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin’s Irish-language novel Madame Lazare into Estonian before rights to an English-language translation have been sold. Mac Dhonnagáin was a featured speaker at Head Read.
Overall, more than 4,000 people attended the fair over the four days. In a country with just 1.3 million people, the Estonian literary community’s ability to stage such an impressively curated event is noteworthy. The one thing missing from the roster of speakers was an American author.
“I think that we fail to attract American participants because they think that we are too far away—or maybe it’s that we are next to Russia and they fear the war,” said fair program director Kaer. “Either way, we’d like to extend an invitation to American authors and publishers to come and visit Head Read. I’m sure they would discover we have more to offer than they expected.”