The Turkish Book Market

Hoping for a Push towards Modernisation

In all the current debate on the accession of Turkey to the EU, there has been no mention of the book market in that country. During a visit to Frankfurt, Turkish translator Vedat Çorlu provided insights into the book industry in the country on the Bosporus.

In all the current debate on the accession of Turkey to the European Union, there has been no mention of the book market in that country. During a visit to Frankfurt, Turkish translator Vedat Çorlu provided insights into the book industry in the country on the Bosporus.

photo: AP
A Turkish flag waves on a boat sailing on the Bosporus through Istanbul.

​​The bare figures are remarkable: Turkey has a population of just under 70 million with 80 per cent literacy – but only four per cent occasionally read a book. The Turkish education ministry statistics can be viewed in another light: namely, that there is still huge potential in Turkey for books and reading culture.

"One reason for the low status of books involves the oral story-telling tradition in our country", says translator Vedat Çorlu. Furthermore, a functioning book trade selling books was only established in the big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa and Antalya. "In the countryside, people have virtually no access to books at all. And on the government side, books have never been considered important."

The state: competing rather than supporting

Although there can no longer be any question of state repression or censorship since the democratisation process has been under way, publishing companies and bookshops need not expect financial support and even libraries are given no funding for systematic purchase of new works.

If it were to provide subsidies, the government would be supporting the competition, because the Turkish state is itself a major publisher. The publishing companies attached to ministries, public authorities and institutes are productive on almost all sectors, making them the biggest rivals for the around 1,400 privately-owned publishing companies of which just under half are actually operational.

Vedat Çorlu has been complaining for years about the lack of support in Turkey for reading and publishing. He was publishing director with the left-wing liberal publishing companies Kalaci and Yapi Kredi, published a literary review and was chair of the non-governmental and non-religious publishers association.

For two years now, the 40-year-old Çorlu’s main occupation has been as a translator, his next project is the translation into Turkish of the works of Franz Kafka and Heinrich Mann. "But you can only just about survive on it."

Turkish publishing companies can be divided into three groups, the religious, the legal and the left-wing/liberal publishers. They produce around 6,000 new publications a year, 4,000 of them original titles and 2,000 translations.

Print-runs average 2,000 copies, the average price of a paperback is 8.50 euros - a lot of money in a country where a publishing editor earns 600 euros a month and a university professor 1,000 euros, even after
many years.

Expensive books, not many bookshops

The approx. 1,300 book outlets in the country are mostly sales points, and the 100 genuine bookshops with a broad range of titles can only be found in the big towns and cities. As there are no fixed prices for books in Turkey, books are often sold at very big discounts.

The book fairs in Istanbul and other cities are particularly good opportunities to pick up a bargain. "Without exception, the book fairs in Turkey are sales-based events where readers can buy books at prices reduced by up to 40 per cent", says Vedat Çorlu. "It follows that book fairs are also important marketing events."

The biggest Istanbul fair is presented every year by fair organisers TÜYAP and was attended this year by 400 exhibitors. "Even if the fair calls itself 'international', this is a national fair", in the view of Çorlu.

Alongside the collective stand organised for German publishers by the Frankfurt Book Fair, the only others to have a presentation here are the British Council Istanbul, BIEF Istanbul, the Spanish cultural institute Instituto Cervantes Istanbul and a few English booksellers.

Potential for rights trade

Translations of English, American or French bestsellers are far more popular among readers than, say, the new titles by popular German authors like Thomas Brussig, Bodo Kirchhoff or Judith Herrmann.

All the same, Turkish publishers are far more interested in German literature than the other way round. "The ratio is about 100:1", in Çorlu’s estimate. In 2003, German publishing companies sold 104 licences to Turkey, around 80 titles were published in Turkish.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is seldom used for rights and licence trade or to make contacts, however. "Turkish publishers rarely buy rights to German titles here."

Apart from language barriers, Çorlu believes that this is mainly because so few publishing people and translators come to Frankfurt from Turkey. For many publishing companies, travel, their stay and the fair’s costs are simply too expensive.

The financial scope of most Turkish publishing companies is indeed very narrow: only 20 publishing companies employ more than five people.

No need to wait for political integration

With annual sales of 300 million euros, the Turkish book market is still terra incognita for many German publishing companies, whilst German readers are familiar with only a few authors, such as Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Pamuk, Ahmet Altan or Aziz Nesin.

But there is also a need to catch up on the Turkish side. Although many Turks know Germany and German culture because of having lived and worked there for a long time, contemporary German authors are virtually unknown in Turkey.

Vedat Çorlu hopes that perhaps negotiations surrounding Turkey’s admission to the EU will also give the book market a push towards modernisation and will boost trade in rights and licences.

But German publishing companies did not need to wait without doing anything until Turkey’s political integration had come closer, urges Vedat Çorlu. "It would be helpful to organise events with German authors in the Istanbul Goethe-Institut, for example.

There would certainly be a great deal of interest among the public." But there is still a long way to go until Turkey can be known as a reading nation.

Eckart Baier

Publication with kind courtesy of Frankfurt International Book Fair

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