Partners in Crime: Bitter Lemon Press

Bitter Lemon Press is dedicated almost exclusively to publishing foreign crime writing, set in exotic places, revealing the dark underbelly of distant countries and cities. We are very small, of course, publishing half a dozen books a year, and barely nine years old. Most readers, even the fans of Words without Borders, will not have heard of us. But we have missed the trend in crime fiction publishing, perhaps the trend in all book publishing., and should be famous for that alone. Astonishing as it may seem, we haven’t published any crime novels from Scandinavia.

This against  an explosion of enthusiasm among readers and film producers for novels by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. And of course the novels of other excellent writers from the North, such as Jo Nesbø, Karin Fossum and Yrsa Siguradottir jump off the bookshelves, even when they are only displayed spine out. Some critics have questioned the taste, if not the sanity of the reading public: as John Crace noted in the Guardian,”The plotlines are bleak, the locations are forbidding and the main characters are usually angst-ridden alcoholics.” Despite, or perhaps because of, these elements, Scandinavian titles continue to top bestseller lists in both the UK and abroad.

So where were we? We were busy watching the publishing industry going through seismic changes in the nine short years of our existence (about which more later), but most importantly we were busy publishing novels that we were passionate about, from countries that we loved from our travels and/or our readings, written in languages that we read ourselves (French, German, Italian, and a smattering of Spanish) or languages read by trusted friends and supporters. When we started in 2003 we knew next to nothing about publishing. We, the three partners in Bitter Lemon Press, were all at crossroads in our lives, planning what to do next. We shared a strong love of books and literature and thought it would be exciting to do something together, and we thought we might know enough about reading habits in the UK and the US to act as a modest bridge to foreign literature. We settled on crime as a good place to start, not only out of interest but also hoping it would be more commercial than general literary fiction. As a group, we form the editorial committee and approve acquisitions unanimously. So far we have stuck mainly to crime and romans noirs but have made exceptions, especially when our authors publish novels outside the genre. In any event our definition of crime literature is very, very elastic. A mere threat of violence or a dark, glistening street is all we need, and we prefer a whydunit to a whodunit.

We launched our first books in January 2004 with, among others,Tonino Benacquista’s Holy Smoke. (We went on to publish three other Benacquistas, one of which, Badfellas, is now being made into a film by Luc Besson starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones.) That same January we published the first of a series of five Inspector Studer novels by Swiss novelist Friedrich Glauser, a cult writer of the 1930s. We were then pulled east to Germany and south to Italy before venturing further along the Mediterranean to Catalonia. We then backtracked, via France and Italy again (Gianrico Carofiglio with his bestselling Guido Guerrieri series, among others), all the way to Turkey. Eventually the Low Countries were added to our list with the Dutch writer Saskia Noort and Jef Geeraerts of Belgium. Poland followed. Latin American literature also beckoned. We introduced Leonardo Padura’s Havana series to Anglophone markets, then had the privilege of publishing a trio of brilliant crime writers from Buenos Aires (Claudia Piñeiro, Sergio Bizzio and Ernesto Mallo) and that famous Argentine exile to Mexico Rolo Diez.

We were busy exploring the world for books we could fall in love with. For us that meant a deep sense of place, an insider’s view of a foreign culture (tell me about your crimes, I’ll tell you about your society), an emphasis on character and psychology rather than plot, and an insistence on good writing. And I must add a need to laugh or at least smile while reading a good crime story. Humour, often dark, is an important ingredient for Bitter Lemon Press. Something not often found in literature from the Far North.

But we confess: we were late getting to Scandinavia. Many of our competitors had done an excellent job of seeking out novels set in Stockholm, Oslo, and Reykjavik, but they didn’t get to Helsinki. This year we published the first of a series by Harri Nykänen featuring the Finnish capital’s only Jewish homicide cop. Strictly speaking, Finland, with its Uralic tongue, is not Scandinavian (Nordic yes, Scandinavian no), so we have kept our Scandinavian record spotless so far. That situation will surely change soon, but  Sweden and Norway will have to be in competition with other countries whose literatures we would like to explore. Perhaps Iran, to go with its extraordinary film making, or China, with its magnificent tales of corruptionyou couldn’t make up the story of Bo Xilai, Gu, and Guagua. And we would love to do something from Japan, and more from Central Europe.

Having said that, there are two important bottlenecks in our business common to all publishers in all genres. The first is finding time to read all the submissions from foreign publishers, agents, and authors (especially in the aftermath of visits to the Frankfurt and London book fairs), and the second is getting space on the tables of bookstores, still the most important way of selling books. Bookstores, you might ask, in this day and age?  It’s true that we operate in a landscape barely recognizable if we think back  to the day we started. First large chains supplanted independent books stores (when we started London had three stores dedicated to crime fiction; today, none). Chains thrive on blockbusters, which begat the cult of the mass-market hardback. Then the Internet started eating the lunch of the chains, and so they (Borders, Books Etc.) have also started to disappear, leaving fewer and hence more expensive ways to get books to the public. All this points to publishing being the next victim of the Internet after the music industry, and so far the reaction of the big boys is to try to consolidate (Bertelsmann-Pearson) their way out of the problem. But I have a feeling they will also end up as roadkill in the Amazon/ Google/Apple wars. And the e-book? As a small publisher, we love e-books. Lower distribution costs, so far little cannibalizing of print sales (we think), and most importantly—no returns. So bookstore tables? When asked why they buy certain books, consumers point to word-of-mouth as the most important factor (reviews come near the bottom of the list), and we think an essential ingredient in creating and reinforcing word-of-mouth is to be visible in stores. To be visible costs big money, as is well known, in the form of extra-discounts for in-store promotions, so that leads to a few words about financing translated fiction.

To paraphrase Obama, if we have a business we didn’t build it alone. Publishers of foreign literature in translation must pay two authors, the writer and the translator, which requires outside help in the form of grants from foreign cultural organizations wishing to promote their literature. We have been lucky to obtain funding for many of our books. Our business model only works if, on average, we get 50% of our translation costs covered in this way. It takes time, and in some cases we still have to argue that the genre is worthy of support, but we couldn’t survive without it.

We remain optimistic about crime publishing, and about independent publishing. For every small publisher that disappears (and there have been quite a few in recent years) there seem to be two new ones starting up. The business models will have to evolve at warp speed, more tightly focused, digitally savvy, and with more direct relationships with customers. But ultimately it all depends on finding and properly publishing books that people want to read, and they can come from anywhere. Even Scandinavia.

© 2012 Laurence Colchester and François von Hurter. All rights reserved.