For one UK independent publisher, this year’s Market Focus region, the Baltic states, is rather special. The poetry and children’s publisher The Emma Press (TEP) has published books by numerous Latvian authors and illustrators, the result of what founder Emma Wright describes as a "rapidly escalating series of nice things which happened in spring 2016".
Lawrence Schimel, publisher at New York indie A Midsummer Night’s Press, knew Wright wanted to start a list of translated poetry for children. He introduced Wright to the team at Latvian Literature, who were in the process of organising a multi-(UK) publisher visit to Riga; she was invited over, and "had a brilliant time on the visit. It really motivated me to bite the bullet and start buying rights. I saw some beautiful books and met some incredibly friendly, talented publishers and illustrators. What drew me most to the literature scene in Riga was the scale, and what it can achieve: it’s small, but crammed with creative people. Also, what I saw of it mostly seemed to be run by women, which I liked."
Does she detect a particularly Latvian style, or topic? "I think the writing often feels extremely exposed and intensely honest. To a British reader Latvian literature can feel startlingly vulnerable and disconcerting—in a good way. We just might not be used to people sharing such [intimate] thoughts. For example, R B’s Queen of Seagulls, which we’re presenting at the LBF, is a picture book about an incredibly grumpy woman who hates her neighbours and steals food from seagulls... I’ve never seen misanthropy so beautifully captured."
The Emma Press founder Emma Wright right and editor Rachel Piercey
Wright founded TEP in 2012, having previously been Orion’s e-book production controller. It hopes to publish 15–20 titles this year, split between poetry anthologies and pamphlets, single-author children’s books and a small number of prose pamphlets. At LBF she is primarily looking to acquire more children’s poetry, but says she may dip her toe into selling. "I’m aware poetry is a tough sell, even without it being translated, but maybe Moon Juice [the list’s top seller; written by Kate Wakeling and illustrated by Latvian artist Elīna Brasliņam, it won the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s Poetry Book Award last year] might pique people’s interest, or Postcard Stories, Jan Carson’s collection of 52 postcard-length stories.”
The industry is living through a particularly rich period for indies, which Wright believes is due to advances in technology. "It’s become easier to make books. You can typeset on your laptop, order a small print run or make an e-book, then sell through a free website. I think the impulse to make books has always been widespread, and it’s just more accessible now."
She’s gratified that its sales agency, Impress, says bookshops are now recognising the TEP name, but says the climate is "hopeful but baffled. Publishing is a weird industry. You can work out how to make a book, but selling it and finding an audience can feel very mysterious for tiny indies." So what advice would she give someone thinking of starting an indie? "You can do it! It’s all reverse engineering. Think about what you respond to as a book lover, and then work out how to create that."