Finland, thus far relatively absent from the international Nordic mystery boom typified by Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and, more recently, the thrillers of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, may have found its entry point in a young adult series poised to obtain a similarly global reach.
Two years after author Salla Simukka first proposed a YA thriller trilogy about a haunted, headstrong teenager named Lumikki, which means “Snow White,” foreign rights to the series have been sold in 33 territories. Tammi, the trilogy’s Finnish publisher, released the first book, As Red as Blood, in February 2013, and book two, As White as Snow, in August 2013. The third installment, As Black as Ebony, is scheduled for spring 2014. Foreign rights were first sold in Croatia, shortly before the Bologna Book Fair this past March. Influential French publisher Hachette Livre generated further international attention by buying rights at the fair. Two weeks later in London, U.K. and U.S rights were sold, to Hot Key and Amazon Children’s Publishing respectively. Amazon’s YA Skyscape imprint will release the first installment in the U.S. next summer.
Simukka is a veteran author in the Finnish market. Her first book, Kun Enkelit Katsovat Muualle (When Angels Look Away)—a young adult novel exploring a romantic relationship between two girls—was published in 2002 when Simukka was 21 years old. Nine years later, while the author was vacationing in Frankfurt, a browse through the YA section of a bookstore sparked the idea for the Snow White trilogy.
“I noticed that there was a selection of what looked like genuine thrillers for young adults,” she tells PW, “much heavier than your usual kids’ detective stories. Even the cover art made me pause for a second and wonder if I had wandered into the adult section. And I realized that we didn’t really have YA fiction in Finland that fit that category.” Simukka envisioned the title As Red as Blood on the bookshelf and, she says, “I thought I would have to add two more books next to it: As White as Snow and As Black as Ebony.”
As is common in Finland, Simukka went directly to her publisher, Tammi, with her idea—a bright, solitary high school girl becomes entangled in a murder case signaled by a stolen pile of bloodstained cash—later that autumn. When she contacted publishing manager Saara Tiuraniemi, she had decided on the genre and titles of the books, a rough plot outline, and that her main character would be called Lumikki—which, unlike Snow White in English, is not unheard of as a first name in Finland.
At the time, Tammi was preparing to publish two other novels of Simukka’s, 2012’s Without a Trace and Elsewhere, which together won Finland’s Topelius Prize for young people’s literature. “Knowing Salla’s strengths as a writer, I was immediately excited about the idea of Snow White,” Tiuraniemi says. Simukka submitted 50 sample pages later that fall, and Tammi committed to a full trilogy.
In shopping the Snow White trilogy abroad, Simukka’s rights agent, Elina Ahlbäck, has pitched the main character as “Lisbeth Salander for a young adult audience.” Within two months of the February 2013 Finnish-language publication of As Red as Blood, 15 foreign rights deals for the trilogy had been made. By midsummer, that number had doubled.
“At Bologna, I overheard a conversation in the bathroom that went something like, ‘Have you been to Tammi’s stand and seen Salla Simukka?’ ” Tiuraniemi says. “And I thought, well, it has started. Knowing that we had produced an international hit felt unreal. After that, most of my phone calls to Salla have begun with, ‘Try to stay calm.’ ”
Simukka’s rapid success abroad is unusual for an author from Finland. Exceptions are Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories, historically the country’s most famous children’s book export; and the most internationally notable Finnish publishing story of recent years, Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, which appeared in English two years after it had picked up Finland’s most prestigious literary prize, Finlandia, and reached the top of national bestseller lists. The Snow White trilogy hasn’t yet become a bestseller, as adult fiction typically dominates the charts in Finland. But the series has gained international notice thanks in large part to a relatively new phenomenon in Simukka’s home country: the literary agency.
Enter the Agent
Historically, writers have negotiated directly with Finnish publishing houses, and those publishers’ foreign rights departments have handled international sales. Tammi, however, works with Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency, one of only two agencies selling foreign rights out of Finland. Following a 15-year career at Finnish company WSOY (like Tammi, now part of the Bonnier Group), first as children’s editor and publisher and later as senior v-p of sales and marketing, and 12 years in bookselling, Ahlbäck founded the agency in 2009 and heads it as part of a three-agent team. Her relationship with Simukka dates back to 1999, when Ahlbäck was part of the jury of a WSOY-organized writing competition scouting for new young adult fiction. Simukka’s entry didn’t win, but over the next couple of years WSOY’s editors helped polish up her manuscript into her debut novel.
After establishing her agency and partnering with Tammi, Ahlbäck began representing Simukka, for Without a Trace and Elsewhere. When Tiuraniemi told Ahlbäck about Simukka’s concept for Snow White, Ahlbäck reached out to Simukka. The Snow White trilogy is the first of Simukka’s works to be sold abroad.
For Simukka, working with an agency on foreign rights deals has been a logical choice. “I’ve been writing books for 10 years and have never been in a situation like this before,” she says, referring to the enormous foreign interest in her work. “It’s impossible that I could become an expert on, say, the Brazilian literary market on my own.”
Simukka added that the shortage of Finnish literature abailable internationally has likely been due to a lack of agencies and an inward-looking culture: "We talk about which author wins what literary prize, but tend to keep the conversation very domestic."
Ahlbäck Literary sells foreign rights for more than 70 Finnish authors of children’s and adult books, and works with Tammi editors to identify writers with potential foreign appeal. Among Ahlbäck’s other Finnish success stories are 29 foreign deals for adult mystery author Leena Lehtolainen and 18 for Sinikka Nopola and Tiina Nopola’s Ricky Rapper middle-grade series.
“When I started the agency,” Ahlbäck says, “everyone said there weren’t enough authors in Finland, that there wasn’t enough demand, and that we were too small of a language area.” Now, she says, her goal is to increase the export of Finnish literature tenfold.
The agency also represents select authors at other Finnish publishers and exclusively handles the Scandinavian sales for the children’s divisions of several major foreign publishers, among them Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Little, Brown. While at WSOY, Ahlbäck was the first publisher to purchase overseas rights to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
“I remember reading Twilight during a snowstorm in Manhattan in 2004,” she says. “The tension between the two main characters as they were falling in love felt completely new; Salla Simukka’s work gave me a similar feeling.” Also at WSOY, Ahlbäck oversaw the Finnish sales, publicity, and marketing efforts for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.
Channeling Lisbeth Salander
Like Larsson’s anti-heroine, Lumikki is emotionally tough, able to alter her identity, prefers solitude, and, Tiuraniemi says, carries traumatic secrets: “Of course, these secrets aren’t quite as heavy as Salander’s because of the intended readership.” Ahlbäck added, “When we combined these recognizable characters, Lisbeth Salander and Snow White, [foreign publishers] could immediately form an association.”
The overseas interest, Ahlbäck and Tiuraniemi agree, may also indicate a move away from fantasy and dystopia toward realism and suspense in YA literature. Among books entering the Scandinavian market, Ahlbäck cited Allen Zadoff’s Boy Nobody, which has been sold in Denmark and Norway, as well as Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers, which is also slated for publication in Norway. Tiuraniemi mentioned Michelle Gagnon’s Don’t Turn Around, whose computer-hacking main character also has strong parallels to Lisbeth Salander, as another recent example of the rise of the young adult thriller, though one not yet out in Finnish. “Many publishers seem to be fed up with dystopia,” Ahlbäck says. “They are looking for stories set in a more realistic world.”
And Finland could be poised to meet that need. “We have a long-spanning tradition of realistic storytelling,” says Tiuraniemi. The beloved Tiina series by Anni Polva (1915–2003), for example, was based on the author’s childhood memories and set in an ordinary neighborhood. Even in the Moomin world of offbeat characters, protagonists cook pancakes, have an annual spring cleaning, and worry about relatable matters such as pensions and unfinished novels.
Sanna Uimonen, Simukka’s editor at Tammi, notes that Simukka’s choice to cast a character named after a classic fairy tale into a realistic thriller is reflective of the Finnish literary tradition. “We utilize mythology in subtle ways in Scandinavian culture,” she says, adding that part of the tradition is making nature a strong presence.
The dark and unforgiving Nordic winter plays a major role in Simukka’s story, for example. Blood seeps into immaculate expanses of snow in a key scene, and unforgivingly low temperatures put characters in danger of freezing to death, forcing them to act quickly. Snow White’s world also has a subtly exotic quality, as Finland’s locations, culture, and environment are still relatively unknown to a global audience.
“We are beginning to look outside of the bubble of Finnish literature and realize that we could have readers abroad,” Simukka says. “But I have no sorcerer’s stone of how to write a book that sells to 33 countries. In the end, at the core of this success is a group of people who have been genuinely excited about the project.”