Publishing consultant and PublisHer board member Emma House interviews bookwomen around the world.
Arevik Ashkharoyan is an Armenian bibliophile who turned away from corporate life in 2010 to set up a literary agency. Four years later, she helped establish the Armenian Literature Foundation, and two years after that she launched the ARI Literary and Talent Agency to represent writers and other creatives of Armenian origin from around the world.
Not content with these accomplishments, a year later in 2017 Arevik launched the non-profit ARI Literature Foundation to lead publishing sector development projects, foster international dialogue and promote reading and writing.
How did you move from the corporate world to publishing?
The first 10 years of my working life was spent working at international and local non-profits and state organizations, and right before my 30th birthday I realized that I want to do something of my own and to stop working 9 to 6 for someone else. This was a very important and life-changing decision which I will never regret. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point, but I knew that I really wanted to work with books, as reading has always been my passion, and the publishing industry sounded very attractive to me.
I talked to a publisher acquaintance and he told me there was a missing link in the local industry called a literary agent. I had to literally Google it and watch some movies about writers and their agents. That’s when I started researching the local literary scene, reading contemporary authors and was surprised at what I found. Small countries like Armenia, especially those with a Soviet past, have a bad tradition of underestimating their own writers. My generation was brought up on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; the mark of big empires on smaller nations is always overwhelming. But for Armenia, with an ancient history and ‘glorious’ past we are so proud of, it takes time to accept the values of modern times.
“I learnt the job from ground zero … In about a year, it was obvious to me this would be the job I would do for the rest of my life.”
So, I started the first ever literary agency in Armenia with a partner. I learnt the job from ground zero, how the publishing industry works – not only locally but internationally. In about a year, it was obvious to me this would be the job I would do for the rest of my life, and in 2016 I left my business partner and established ARI Literary and Talent Agency. Now I work with around 15 Armenian contemporary writers, as well as promising emerging writers and total newcomers. Among my clients are some of the best authors in Armenia and I am proud to be working with them.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
The first challenge you face when you represent literature from a small country is pitching it to publishers who have never heard of your country. You need to tell them where you come from and give them some background about your country, language and history before you start talking about literature.
Another challenge was to realize that agenting and selling rights of Armenian authors alone wouldn’t earn me a living wage, let alone run a company. However, it was also obvious that I wasn’t going to give up this profession for an employed role. So we started offering services to help us cover costs. And now we also have a long list of clients – independent local publishers who buy rights with our help.
“The biggest challenge, though, is the lack of professional literary translators from Armenian into many languages.”
The others problems we face include the lack of creative writing training and other necessary conditions for the development of the book market in Armenia and its promotion worldwide. To solve this, I established a non-profit organization called the ARI Literature Foundation, which is implementing projects to provide those conditions not just for me, but the wider industry. ARI Foundation is now implementing such projects as Write in Armenia International Writing Camp to create dialogue between young and emerging writers from different countries and to find and train the new generation of Armenian writers. Another project we do is Let’s Read! clubs, to promote reading from a young age and ensure a new generation of readers. A recent endeavour, Zabel International Women Writers Forum, which we are starting in October 2020 – is to invite established women writers from all over the world to share their experiences and empower young women writers in their future career.
The biggest challenge, though, is the lack of professional literary translators from Armenian into many languages. We have tailored a Translators’ Association and Residency Program and are now trying to find funding for its implementation.
I do understand that most of these issues should be solved by the government, or, at least, by governmental funding of non-profits to implement this kind of project. But, I think, and this is not only true of Armenia, changes first come from individuals before they find solutions in the cultural policies and later state-funded programs. At least there is the translation support project from the National Library of Armenia, which is called Armenian Literature in Translation, which is also a result of private and non-profit representatives, including me, lobbying for it for years.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
I really enjoy book fairs; these are always my happy moments. And of course, with every new edition of the books, it’s like a new and stronger motivation to continue my work. But there are many other moments to look forward to, such as conversations with writers and feedback of readers.
Once a friend of mine told me that it must be amazing to get paid for reading books. Yes, it is amazing, unless you have to first earn the money and then pay yourself. But it is still worth it.
“I haven’t yet got used to the moment of holding in my hands a physical copy of a new foreign edition of a book I represent.”
What have been the highlights of your career in publishing?
Every next rights deal is a special highlight for me. These deals are made with such difficulty and the foreign editions come so late that I haven’t yet got used to the moment of holding in my hands a physical copy of a new foreign edition of a book I represent.
I believe that the real highlights are still to come and one of them would be to sell movie rights to one of our books. I represent a wonderful fantasy novel, which has a great movie potential.
What is so special about Armenian writers?
Every literature is special in its way. Armenian literature has some outstanding storylines and ideas which can be described as a search for identity at national and personal levels.
Armenian contemporary writers have lived through many shocking and life-changing events. The collapse of an ‘empire’ after 70 years of Soviet reign in the region, finally gained a long-desired independence, which came with its hardships and a regional conflict, still unresolved, and a genetic memory of a genocide.
“There has always been a gap between our literary and spoken language, and the current generation is working on narrowing it.”
All these and our incredible pride of our ancient history, gave birth to a literature about struggle for independence, preservation of identity and creation of the new culture. Of course, we can name dozens of countries with similar topics in their literature. But what’s outstanding in contemporary Armenian literature is the new language that authors are creating to express themselves and the new realities. There has always been a gap between our literary and spoken languages and the current generation is working on narrowing it. The contemporary novels are not strictly plot driven; most of them are post-modern, a belated new Armenian post-modernism.
Apart from these literary fiction titles, we do have some commercial genre fiction as well, such as high fantasy and fantasy-romance. But it is difficult with commercial fiction, since being a writer in Armenia used to mean something different than in the most of the world. It was considered a sacred person, and literature a holy place. It is this stereotype that the new generation is now breaking and creating great literature for everyone and not only the select few. In any case, the novels and short fiction that I represent are selected to fit different readers and will come as a surprise to many of them worldwide.
Has anyone inspired you?
I was quite inspired by some agents whom I met at the very beginning of my career and all three of them have become my mentors. I still keep contact, work with them and hang out at book fairs around the world. My godmother in agenting is Bettina Nibbe from Nibbe Literary Agency, in Munich, whom I met during her trip to Armenia for a publishers’ forum in 2011. And the other mentors and friends are Nermin Mollaoglu from Kalem Literary Agency, Istanbul and Rema Dilan from Peter Lampack Agency, NY. Outstanding women and personalities.
What is the situation for women in publishing in Armenia?
The situation is very complicated. There are neither many female publishers, nor writers. However, women are a majority within translators. Armenia has a controversial history of women in leadership, such as the first woman diplomat in the early 20th century, whereas in many European countries women still couldn’t vote, and, at the same time, quite a traditional and conservative society later.
“Armenia has a controversial history of women in leadership.”
Right now, with revolution and government change two years ago, the situation is slowly changing, but there is still a long way to go for women to break through in this sector and many others. The question why there are not many women writers among outstanding classics is unfortunately still not clear to many. And the question about why there are not many today in contemporary Armenia is still to be answered. It is interesting that when we do a creative writing programme for young writers 90% of applicants are young women. But when it comes to getting first books published, it is vice versa. Something is preventing young women from choosing writing as a career, and the reason could be the views on women writers in a traditional and conservative society. But this will change gradually with every success that women are having these days.
What do you do in your spare time?
My job is a lifestyle. My spare time is spent mostly on reading or watching movies. But since I am also a proud mother of two, I try to spend as much of my free time with them as possible. But apparently my best communication with kids is either through reading to them or discussing the books they have read. They are great readers and I find it very effective to teach them things through the books I offer them to read.