Children's Publishing in Scotland - A Norwegian Perspective

By Kenneth Steven

Last week I returned from a conference in Lillehammer in eastern Norway on the state of children's publishing in the country and on the fate of those children's books once they're in print. I came back to Scotland as my own first novel for young readers, The Santa Maria, made its appearance from Argyll Publishing.

The Santa Maria

The conjunction of conference and new book gave me plenty to ponder. In Norway at least a hundred new books of all types for children – from bath books to young adult titles – will appear each year, and that's a conservative estimate. It's worth remembering that Norway's population is pretty much synonymous with Scotland's.

Now it's not that the notion of a Scottish children's book (i.e. a children's book produced in Scotland) is some kind of contradiction in terms. There are a number of houses doing sterling work to produce good quality new books north of the border, but in terms of quantity our output and range is extremely thin in comparison with Norway's.

I also work as a translator of Norwegian fiction and poetry (thus far of titles for adults). The organisation that employs me does a vast amount to fight the cause of Norwegian writing around the globe, to ensure that attention is drawn to it at the major book festivals, mainly by the provision of sample translations to entice foreign publishers.

And for good reason. When only four million people in the world share a language it's imperative to fight hard for the literature of that language so that what deserves to be translated can be accessed. It was through NORLA – Norwegian Literature Abroad – that Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World was discovered and bought by a whole host of countries. Lars Saabye Christensen, whose Nordic Prize-winning novel The Half Brother I translated half a dozen years ago, would have found his book in every store in Britain after Vintage produced a reader-friendly version of the 700 page story.

Children's books remain neglected as far as English language versions are concerned – a subject we discussed at length in Lillehammer. But the fact is that NORLA's efforts pay off, not only in the English-speaking world but far beyond.

At Scottish Book Trust BRAW, the new wing of the organisation dedicated to developing and supporting children's book publishing and marketing in Scotland, and to providing crucial support for authors and illustrators, are taking ever more effective action in respect of those mission statements. I see BRAW and NORLA as sharing many goals, and indeed I hope they may be able to co-operate in coming years.

One thing that has assisted Norwegian publishers and authors alike has been the innkjøpsordning by which a thousand copies of each new book published in the country are bought by libraries. This hasn't just been a God-send to children's authors; the ruling has been of benefit to poets, novelists and dramatists writing for an adult audience too. So however few copies a first time author – or an old hand! - may sell in the shops, he or she is guaranteed a royalty cheque for a first thousand copies. The only people who seem to labour under the strain of this are the library staff, whose basements are ever more crammed with stacks of new books.

Norwegian publishing, reflecting the country's own social democratic trends, is shared pretty effectively from top to bottom. Of course the big players are for the most part in Oslo, but there are significant names in Bergen and Tondheim, and in the far north where the publishing of Sami (Lapp) writing is of greatest significance.

I hope I may live to see the day when the same can be said of Scotland, where Highland publishers based in Inverness are bringing out books that are given just as much attention as those produced in the capital. It matters for the establishment of a greater sense of the country's wholeness, the need for authors from every area to be represented and included and taken seriously.

I'm thrilled that The Santa Maria was taken up by a Scottish publisher – that was always my hope for it. It makes sense that a thoroughly Scottish story should be brought out by a Scottish house! But the temptation for authors to make life easier and better by going down south is far too strong, and there's plenty of work to be done before the reverse is true.

  • Cover scan of The Santa Maria
    The Santa Maria - Kenneth C. Steven - Paperback
    A Hebridean boy lives with his grandfather. All his life he has heard whispers of a Spanish galleon that is supposed to have gone down off the island's coast with its promised treasure. The story culminates in a great storm, and the hunt for The Santa Maria begins in earnest.
Kenneth Steven

Kenneth Steven is a full-time poet, children's author and translator from Perthshire. His picture book The Dragon Kite will appear from Tamarind in July and his newest collection of poems, Salt and Light, from Saint Andrew Press in September.

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