The UK is a nation of book lovers. Books are the most popular form of physical media in the UK, coming in above DVDs and video games. In a 2014 study, 84 per cent of UK adults had a physical book collection, with an average size of 86 books per person. We have one of the highest numbers of bookshops per person in the world, our publishing industry is buzzing and print book sales grew in 2015.
Of course, as with all love affairs, our collective passion for the written word continues to evolve with time, and one of the ways in which our reading habits are developing is a fascinating growth in the popularity of books in translation. This is a hugely exciting development for those of us who work in publishing, where international rights sales of books is a cornerstone of the UK publishing industry.
Prior to becoming Director of The London Book Fair, my working life has always been in the book industry. For many of these years the sales of translated fiction sold in English was fairly flat, as readers showed huge preference for home grown writers. However, over the past ten years, sales of translated fiction have shot up in the UK - perhaps, I like to think, that as travel has become more accessible and within reach to more people, a greater interest in others' lives and ways of life has been piqued. Translated fiction has grown to 5% of annual fiction sales, and crucially research published earlier this year showed that translated books now sell more copies per title than the average English language title. These figures, from a survey commissioned by Man Booker International Prize, show the huge potential for translated fiction.
This commercial success for translated fiction has been largely due to some breakout authors, from Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson to Italy's Elena Ferrante whose novels and storytelling have captivated readers across many cultures. The success of Scandinavian crime fiction or Scandi Noir, in particular, which went stratospheric after the success of Larsson is particularly instructive about how reading and books help build cultural empathy. Scandi Noir started with novels selling millions of copies from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and then came the success of crime genre film and television, as the majority of published works nowadays have been adapted for the big and small screen. Novelists and Nordic natives like Jo Nesbø, Hakan Nesser and Hanning Mankell are swiftly becoming the best in the business. Their eerie setting, desolate characters and complex subject matters are constantly leaving readers wanting more and in their wake we have begun to explore Scandinavian culture with Danish Hygge and Swedish Finke hitting the cultural mainstream in 2016.
However, I am still struck that there are many countries with rich, ground-breaking literary authors, which are barely represented on British bookshelves and I think particularly at this time of increasing fragmentation reading each others' literature across Europe and the world could do us all the power of good.
Polish literature is a case in point. there is a lively book scene in Poland including the annual Conrad Festival I attended last week in Krakow. Their authors, such as Andrzej Sapkowski, bestselling author of The Witcher Series, sell phenomenally well across Europe and there are many other fabulous authors - but are they household names here in the UK?
They certainly should be...The UK has a large Polish diaspora, indeed Polish is now the second most spoken language in the UK, so why have so few of us ever read a Polish book? While 'Polksi sklep' ('Polish shop') may be a familiar sight on many UK high streets, in the UK our knowledge of the country itself, and especially its writers, remains limited. Beyond a few familiar names for book lovers like Joseph Conrad and Czeslaw Milosz, many of us might struggle to name the top 10 Polish authors. I don't have the answer but I hope to have part of the solution. As The London Book Fair, working with the British Council and the Polish Book Institute, will bring over a great selection of Polish authors in March next year, including Andrzej Sapkowski and we hope some of these authors will get more visibility and availability in UK bookshops at festivals and in the media.
Books are a window into another world, whether real or imaginary. They give us the opportunity to imagine life in someone else's shoes, to understand their hopes, dreams, perspectives and cultures. As Ian McEwan puts it so beautifully, "Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality". Reading books from other countries allows us to experience both these differences and parallels from the inside - surely a good thing in this complex world of ours.
The London Book Fair takes place at Kensington Olympia, London from 14-16 March 2017 and Poland will be the Market Focus country.