Forget about the chocolate, it’s all about Belgium’s booksellers
By Yasmin Morrissey, on 14 November 2014
By Marianne Tatepo
In my experience, there is a strong correlation between bedridden days and creative output. This has as much to do with one’s deliriously feverish state as it has with the spare time illness offers in those rare few hours of woken lucidity. This time – coinciding with term one’s Reading Week – has been no different.
Firstly, as part of our Sales, Marketing and Promotion class run by Nick Canty and a FutureBook-worthy list of guest speakers, we were recently assigned a market research presentation on a country derived from our year’s own melting pot of nationalities. Being my cohort’s resident Belgian, the land of Tintin was one of them. Having been born and bred in Brussels, the task seemed redundant at first. Yet, it soon dawned on me that even with just six weeks of attendance on the MA Publishing at UCL under my belt, not just my knowledge but also my approach to the book trade had undergone a partial revolution.
The runner-up months to embarking on the Master’s already had me picking up the reflex to inspect publisher logos on books I browsed. And now, looking at the list of booksellers and retailers Brussels had to offer, I wondered: “independent or conglomerate?” When met with discounts, I found myself assessing how the publisher might be affected by my purchase.
More relevant yet, I took to comparing disparities between French and Dutch-language versions of the same book and consider rights and translation issues. Thanks to Hachette’s pan-European positioning, I started to see how major French-language publishers were largely better off than their Dutch-language counterparts – not least because of the significantly marginal percentage of those who speak the language.
Conversely, I mused about my knowledge of ‘contemporary’ Dutch and French authors. Shamefully, I can admit that partially due to the rigidly French Academy-driven syllabus for French literature in many schools, I had read more contemporary Dutch texts than French (e.g. Vallen (1994) by Anne Protvos and Tim Krabbé’s Het Gouden Ei (1984)).
Through this task I discovered rare gems about my beloved Belgium and its new English-language literary scene. Thanks to a large expat community, Brussels has a Waterstones, which is the culprit for my incurable obsession. But I was also pleased to find that the indie book scene of Belgium is still very much thriving – partially owing to Filigranes and Sterling Bookshop, which it would be no exaggeration to call Brussels’ own Foyles (having similarly recently re-located). One of the factors to this discovery is the increasing use of social media and creation of communities. Despite being across the Channel, I have become a fervent follower of different local bookstores’ book-related riddles and rhymes and found this:
- Two thespians, who meander the streets of Brussels as an Edgar Allan Poe cadaver would, under the moniker of… ‘James Joyce & Franz Kafka’. Their uncanny resemblance to Europe’s foremost modernists simultaneously terrorizes and intrigues pedestrians with engaging performance art.
- One of the underdog exhibitions: The Antwerp Book Fair (Boekenbeurs, or ‘book fair’ in Dutch), where the ilk of Lena Dunham were expected this year.
- Something particularly relevant to my Publishing Project (the UCL Publishers’ Prize): a Belgian man’s response to ‘365 days’ photography projects. 300 stories of flash fiction written over about a year. Its output was a collection of 101 stories, titled You’re getting sleepy, the hypnotist’s apprentice yawned. The work was thereafter sold on Createspace (a self-publishing platform), and also retails on Amazon.
These are but few of the endless discoveries I made as a by-product of my coursework. As each day goes by, I am both reassured and validated in my choice of degree – not least because of how enthusiastic and approachable the teaching body is. Yet, what motivates me most is the hurdles thrown at us and the fact that sometimes, just as the rabbit did with Alice, they take us bookworms not down but up rabbit holes – albeit not nightmarish but idyllic ones with whiffs of curiosity along the way, and the light of intellectual enlightenment as endpoint.