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Moira Forsyth reports from Norway

Our Editorial Director, Moira Forsyth, is presently a guest of the Norwegian Publishers Association.

Day 1, Oslo

From the Scandic Holberg Hotel, a group of publishers from all over the world made their way on Tuesday evening to the first event of their visit to Norway. I'm fortunate to be invited this year to participate in a programme which has been running for about 11 years, bringing together international agents and publishers to meet Norwegian colleagues.

We went first to the House of Literature, a large building on several stories, which has been created and is run to provide a venue for literary and other events, work-spaces for authors, opportunities for children and young people - the children's room is delightful, and full of children's books - and on the ground floor a thriving restaurant and well stocked bookshop.

Norway supports writers well, but is keen also to support readers, every year funding a large number of purchases of new Norwegian publications for their libraries. New books are protected by a form of net book agreement and cannot be discounted more than 12.5%. The publishers' association is currently negotiating an end to VAT on e-books following the remittance of VAT on other media - not just print newspapers but online versions too.

The studio flat in the House of Literature provides secluded work and living space for authors from elsewhere - Murakami worked here for three weeks almost incognito.

One wall of one of the meeting rooms is given over to cartoon portraits of Norway's most famous writers. Apparently one of the portraits was defaced by a writer who was annoyed that her own image isn't included here - she broke in and stuck her own picture in the middle of the drawing of the poet laureate. This has been removed of course and the portrait restored but the culprit wasn't prosecuted - they understood her feelings!

The evening came to an end after a really delicious meal in Festningen, a restaurant housed in the old fortress in the medieval part of the city.

Day 2 Oslo to Lillehammer

We began the second day of the Publishers' Seminar in Norway with visits. First to Tiden, one of the smaller publishers, which is now part of the Gyldendal group. Tiden publish only fiction. They have 6 staff, and publish 25-30 titles a year, so are comparable in size to Sandstone.

Richard Aaro from Tiden described the support Norwegian publishers receive from their government, through arts council and other funding, including an arrangement for libraries to buy a guaranteed 700 copies of a number of new titles each year. This takes the risk out of publishing new authors, though it doesn't of itself guarantee profit. First print runs are 1700, and of course if the book is selected for the libraries' scheme, 700 of those have a guaranteed sale. Not all new titles are selected - but most of Tiden's are.

Bookshops are almost all owned by one of the big publishing houses, and prices for the first 12-15 months are fixed - shops cannot discount by more than 12.5%. Fully independent bookshops are not bound by this agreement, and a number of shops have now opened selling more commercial titles at lower prices. On the whole, though, it benefits publishers to supply the bookshops which do observe this. Bookshops take 50-55% discount.

Richard said that these arrangements put an onus on publishers to produce high quality material, and much of the fiction published here is literary. The name everyone mentions - at every meeting - is Karl Ove Knausgaard, who is clearly a publishing phenomenon for Norway. But they recognise that of course his level of fame and extraordinary sales don't happen too often!The fiction in translation which Norwegian publishers take on tends to be more commercial.

There are few independent literary agents in Norway, (big publishers are also agencies) and publishers deal directly with authors.Royalty agreements are all alike, though some authors get higher advances; publishers share distributors, and own the bookshops. The 'competitive edge' for a publisher in securing an author must therefore be in the relationship they form with them - and the ability to demonstrate what they can do for the book. Tiden have a policy of editing well, building new authors and giving them an opportunity to reach their 'breakthrough' book. So a lot there for Sandstone to identify with.

Tiden also handle rights in house, though if the rights for a particular book are likely to be considerable they use agents who are rights specialists.

E-books have a very small market share -they sell at about the same price as hard copy, though with a slightly lower price initially. No Amazon in Norway! Tiden have been selling through their website, but not a great deal. Their new website will take readers direct to a bookshop website.

We went next to Cappelen Damm, the largest publishing house in the country where we heard from several editors about their lists.They publish 1,000 titles a year: fiction, non-fiction, children's books and for the education market. Their turnover is in excess of €91m. Fiction accounts for 40-50 titles a year. They have become known as the publisher of the Man Booker winners over the years.

Next to Aschehoug, where we heard about their work and were also provided, round the long table where we sat, with coffee, sweets and then a delicious lunch!

Aschehoug publish 150 titles a year, 65% of them from Norwegian authors. Inspired by The Faber Academy, they run 'author schools' and evening classes in writing. They see this as helping them find new talent but from around 700 submissions a year they are likely to pick no more than 40 new titles. A better proportion than we can manage though!

One of their most successful titles is a long novel in three parts called 'the History of Bees' by Maja Lunde - translated into many languages but not so far English.

We didn't have a meeting at Gyldendal - publisher of our own prize-winning Jorn Lier Horst, but Oliver Moystad from NORLA showed us the interior of their wonderful building - see the photos I took - where they maintained the original facade (which is protected) but removed all of the interior and had it redesigned by a famous architect. Hmm... one day we'll have something similar at Sandstone Towers!

Finally we visited Kaage Forlag, a small independent publisher with 20 employees, which was started by an entrepreneurial and imaginative former Himalayan climber. They publish mainly Norwegian non-fiction. They see themselves as commercial publishers, but their enthusiasm and dedication to quality was apparent when Tuva Orbeck Sorheim spoke to us about their list. Their biggest seller just now is Hel Ved - in English, Norwegian Wood, a book about cutting and stacking wood - and clearly much more. (published by Maclehose in the UK - and they have also produced a colouring book based on the original, which they have sold back to Kaage!) Knitting books are very popular - for good reasons I guess in a country with such long cold winters.

They run their company on very collegiate lines, having regular ideas meetings, coming up with projects then finding the right author to fulfil the idea and create the book. Editorial and marketing staff meet often, and all discuss whether to publish something or not - so that they're all invested in each idea and all the books. They aim to provide as integrated a process as possible for the author.

Eiren Haugen who runs an independent agency also spoke to us about her work with authors, selling foreign rights. She also explained the three official languages that co-exist in Norway.

We finished the day with a visit to the house of Nobel laureate, Sigrid Undset, Bjerkebaek - a wonderful house and garden - and she was clearly a formidable woman and dedicated author. Really impressive - the guide was so knowledgeable.

Then a brief introduction to the Lillehammer Festival, and more delicious food. We really have been treated so well. I now want to stay for several weeks and write a novel.

Day 3, Lillehammer

We began the day with an introduction to contemporary Norwegian fiction by Marta Norheim. Since the huge success of Karl Ove Knausgaard autobiographical novels have become very popular, blurring the distinction between autobiography and fiction. The most explored themes are around guilt (usually the guilt of the middle classes for being so fortunate...), the unreality of life, loneliness and freedom. Fortunately perhaps many of the books are veined with humour too.

Novels which deal with the future are not really science fiction - they focus on global warming and climate change; those set in the past go as far back as Alexander the Great, and even Biblical times.

After this we heard from three authors, Birger Emanuelson (see Tiden's website), Tor Even Svanes (see Cappelen Damm's website) and Hanne Orstavik.

Then we had coffee.

Per Oystein Roland was our next speaker, and he gave us an overview of Norwegian non-fiction which managed to be both informative and amusing. Books about chopping wood, fishing.... and much else. He was followed by three non-fiction authors, all of whom I suddenly wanted to publish. How can I persuade my colleagues we should translate Lars Frederik Svendsen's 'Philosophy of Loneliness' (Aschehoug), Ole Martin Hoystaad's 'The Significance of the Soul', or Bjorn Berg's 'Nowherelands- Lost Countries of the 19th and 20th Centuries'? (Both represented by Hagen Agency.) I discovered afterwards the loneliness book has gone to an English Language publisher already, but I don't know which.

The morning finished with a short talk from Oliver Moystad explaining how NORLA supports publishers with translation grants and advice about finding the right translator, and also provides translators with a forum to meet and other help.

Lunch was in the hotel - a buffet with a wide choice of hot food and salad. We really have been treated so well while we've been here - every meal a delight. I even took a photo of this one.

The afternoon was given over to private meetings and though I had a couple arranged, with Bjorn Aagenæs from Kolon Forlag and Anne Catherine Eng from Gyldendal, I had free time too and went walking round the town, then came back to my room to write up my notes and work.

We met at 6.30 to be taken to the main festival event in the concert theatre. This is set in the Maihaugen open air museum, a collection of wooden houses which were lying empty and unused on remote farms. They've been lovingly rebuilt here, complete with turf roofs.

The event was introduced by Rebecca Dinerstein, an American author who lived in Norway for several years. I gather she was hugely entertaining as everyone laughed a lot, but since it was all in Norwegian I can't pass on any of the jokes! However, the authors reading their work in the first half were all from the US: beat poets, a young novelist, and a country and western singer like no other.

The second half was wonderful - I felt so privileged to be there in one of the excellent seats booked for our group. John Freeman interviewed Linn Ullman (daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman), who has written a novel based on her parents' lives, and Richard Ford. Ford had the relaxed avuncular air of the man of letters with nothing to prove: he was amusing, witty, generous and - not a word I often use about anyone - wise.

Dinner afterwards was at Kirkestua, Maihaugen, and it was a perfect meal to complete our visit. Our end of the table began telling each other our stories, the wine was generously supplied as it has been all through our trip, and the long tables were lit by candles that cast flickering lights on glasses and silver. When we went outside it was still light, the pearly sky still holding, at eleven o'clock, the faint pink of the sunset.

Then, this morning at breakfast, I saw a now familiar figure gathering his breakfast from the buffet and realised Richard Ford was in our hotel. I was able to tell him how much I'd enjoyed hearing him last night.

Home soon!