International Bestsellers: Risky Business

Copyright Conundrums in Iran, Swedish Suburbs & Chilean Death

Publishing in Iran is a tough business. Just last year, Publishing Trends reported on the international stir caused by the Iranian government’s banning of Coelho‘s THE ZAHIR (PT June 2005). Eventually, the ban was lifted and Coelho turned up on Iranian bookshelves all over the country. However, it appears the government’s cooperation may have been more related to the upcoming election and placating the public rather than an acknowledgment of the importance of free speech. Soon after elected, President Mahmoud Abmadinejad appointed the ultra-conservative Hussein Saffar Harandi to the position of Minister of Culture and since then, few, if any, licenses to publishers for the publication of new books have been issued and all previous licenses are up for review as well.

Arash Hejazi, publisher at Caravan Books in Iran, says, “The new government has put a harsh censorship program [on] any book (Iranian or translation) containing sex, politics, promotion of other ideas or religions, etc. … The government can stop us from reprinting the books at any time.” All books have to go through the censorship protocol, which entails obtaining permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance of final proofs and of bound books before distribution.

The publishing process, both of Iranian books in other countries and translated books in Iran, is fraught at every step. If the Iranian government approves the publication of a translated book, it’s likely the book will be so mutilated by censorship that it might not even resemble the original. And to the dismay of agents, publishers, and authors around the world, chances are Persian language rights to the original have not been purchased. Of the top ten translated fiction bestsellers in Iran, only three have been confirmed as authorized editions (THE ZAHIR, THE DESERT, and BRIDA). Five are unauthorized (LOVE, LIVING TO TELL, TIMEQUAKE, THE DA VINCI CODE, and ORACLE NIGHT). The remaining two agents could not be reached by press time.

To complicate matters more, even when Iranian publishers have the best intentions and do seek authorization from a foreign author, sometimes the author or agent require so much bureaucratic hoop-jumping that the process can go on for years. Arash Hejazi, who worked to bring Coelho legally to his country’s readers, spent another three years translating and introducing Le Clézio, negotiating for one year with Gallimard. While publishing without authorization should be avoided at all costs, he still hopes to legalize Caravan’s edition of Márquez’s Living to Tell. Often, several unauthorized translations and editions of the same book are available in Iran which makes the market “very complicated and unhealthy,” comments Hejazi. He adds that any agreement with the original agent or author is “only an act of goodwill and does not help us in the competitive market.”

The rights holder of a pirated title has little recourse on the global front. In 2005, an estimated $76.5 million was lost due to book piracy in the Middle East and Africa alone according to a recent report of nations on the Priority Watch List of copyright piracy published by the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA). The U.S. Copyright Office states “There is no such thing as an ‘international copyright’ that will automatically protect an author’s writings throughout the world. Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country basically depends on the national laws of that country.” The possibility of remuneration exists only if the foreign nation has participated in an international copyright convention (the two principals being the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention). Iran has participated in none.

Perhaps preoccupied with other Iranian issues, the U.S. government has yet to take a stand against copyright piracy there. Recent raids of copyshops and publishers in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong undertaken by the AAP‘s International Copyright Protection Program and spearheaded by Patricia Judd, the Anti-Piracy Program’s head, have all been successful.

Towards a less contentious topic, we shift to Sweden. If precedent is any indication, the new Jonas Gardell novel, Jenny, to be published in May, will create the same sensation that his previous endeavors have. A cultural icon at 43, Jonas Gardell reigns as the king of all media in Sweden. He is to his native country what David Sedaris is to the U.S., times ten. His new novel takes place 25 years after an end-of-school-year party in a suburb of Stockholm at which the class’s unpopular and frumpy scapegoat, Jenny, suffers a terrible disaster. Her best friend and the only student absent from the party, Juha, puzzles over what happened on that crucial day. His classmates remain silent and hostile even after Juha receives a mysterious letter hinting at what took place. Since his first novel, The Passion Play, was published in 1985, Gardell has been a powerhouse of cultural production, writing seven plays, 13 novels, and a handful of screenplays in addition to starring in a talk show and selling out arenas in Europe with his stand-up comedy act. Substance, however, is not sacrificed in his prolificness. Critics along with film and theatre festival juries adore him. About his nonfiction musings on the nature of God, ABOUT GOD (2003), one critic said “No one but Jonas Gardell would dare to do this,” a comment that testifies to the intimate and trusted position Gardell holds in the Swedish public consciousness. According to Bari Pearlman, an American who undertook the translation of WANNA GO HOME (1988) as a labor of love and admiration while living in Sweden, Gardell is immune to taboos and writes with a simplicity that reveals both the humor and tragedy of everyday life, often with female protagonists. Rights to the translation along with English language rights to his other works remain though his previous books have been sold in thirteen languages. Contact Johanna Kinch ( for rights or Bari Pearlman ( for a translated excerpt of WANNA GO HOME..

On the other side of the world, the debut novel of Pablo Simonetti, one of the major new voices among Chilean writers, continues to tear up the bestseller list after 43 weeks, seesawing in sales with the other Chilean book phenomenon of the year, WOMAN OF MY LIFE (see PT March 2006). MOTHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN (Planeta) deals with women’s history while doing justice to the strength of character found in resilient women through the reflections of the protagonist, Julia, as she dies. The daughter of Italian immigrants, Julia contemplates her relationships with her parents and children. Her gay son, Andrès, passes through the novel, but the first person narration eclipses the actual events of the story. In an interview, Simonetti says “The way she saw her story was much more interesting to me [than the story itself].” Trained as an engineer in Chile and at Stanford, Simonetti was heretofore known for his short stories which are collected in VIDAS VULNERABLES. Rights to MOTHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN have been sold to Argentina (Planeta), Brazil (Planeta), Netherlands (Sijthoff), Italy (Gruppo Editoriale Mauri Spagnol/Corbaccio). Contact Piergiorgio Nicolazzini ( for more information.