It’s July and publishing folk the world over have settled back down now that the spring trifecta of book fairs—London, Bologna, BEA—has passed. The jury’s still out on which one––including Frankfurt of course––wins the rights race, and, as usual, there’s been plenty of speculation. But as big book fair chatter continues, another conversation is ramping up. More and more, Americans and foreigners alike are choosing to attend local and regional fairs abroad, coming home to spread the good word of books and publishing to professionals and readers alike from Tokyo to Tallinn to Turin to Taipei.
Foreign publisher associations, governments, and chambers of commerce around the world recognize that Americans are an insular lot (look how much they read in translation!), so they’re bringing us to them for some beneficial cultural indoctrination at their expense. Thanks to local governmental subventions and fellowships, American publishing people are hitting locales where the atmosphere is less frenetic than Frankfurt and more conducive to conversations instead of 15-minute sound bytes at a table in the rights center.
Globally, the public too is going fair crazy and double digit growth in attendance has been par for the course the last few years. Frankfurt-sponsored Cape Town swelled in 2007 with attendance increasing from 26,000 in 2006 to over 49,000 in 2007 despite the fact that less than a quarter of the population reads regularly. Thessaloniki, now in its fourth year, grew 40% to 70,000 in 2007. Fairgoers in Turin waited hours to hear Umberto Eco and more than 30% of visitors to Leipzig traveled over 200 kilometers to get there.
Torino, Torino, Torino
Attending the Turin Book Fair is no hardship. In only its second year and held in a dazzling converted Fiat factory, the Turin Book Fair organizers, along with a slew of local cultural development sponsors, foot the bill not just for participants in their year-old fellowship program, but for foreign visitors and exhibitors too.
“The fair is sort of the Italian BEA,” said Farley Chase from the Waxman Agency and two-time Turin-goer. Though it’s heavily public-focused with stacks of books for purchase piled everywhere throughout the floor, the fair’s burgeoning rights center, an extra 6,000 square meters added since 2006, and the “Incubator,” a front-and-center area for small publishers less than two years old, make Turin a professional contender unlike, alas, the “themed” Siena fair of the past couple years–Terra di Libri: Books of the Lands of the World–which didn’t catch on to say the least. For Chase, the results were tangible at Turin as he racked up “a bunch of sales” and still had time to mingle.
But selling rights is not the only reason to show up at local fairs. As is generally true in publishing, it’s the serendipitous encounter that pulls people back and keeps foreign culture vultures paying for us to do so. “It is so important to meet people face to face in this industry because we’re not making cars, we’re discussing books. Books change the world,” said the ebullient Alexandre Vasconcelos of Portugal’s Caderno, a Turin fellow and perhaps the fair’s biggest foreign champion.
Patrick Nolan of Penguin was one of the other 14 fellows who embarked on the two-week journey through Italian publishing. Unlike other fair fellowship programs, this one wasn’t limited to just rights or editorial people, and Nolan’s sales and marketing perspective changed the group dynamic. “We coached each other and asked ‘ lot of questions. Someone would throw out a problem or issue and ask ‘How would you work with sales and marketing in this situation?’” he said. “It was great for Penguin because I was able to clarify a lot of things for people, help foreign publishers understand Penguin better, and even point them to specific people or departments. It was very useful to me since I’m not a typical fairgoer.”
Of course what sponsors hope will come out of the program is the actual “fellowship,” the relationships formed between fairgoers, whose dividends keep coming years after paying the few thousand dollars it takes to bring hesitant foreigners to them. “Everyone who goes, we’re all talking to 10,000 people, telling everyone about our time and what we learned there,” said Vasconcelos. Apparently a little viral marketing isn’t too much to hope for either.
The same holds true in Jerusalem, the granddaddy of fair fellowships now in its 22nd year. The 2007 edition had the most competitive applicant pool, but the program itself is finding more competition from other programs too. This year it happened to coincide with a one-week exploratory trip to Paris and Berlin (sponsored by the German Book Office, the French Embassy, and the French-American Foundation). Anjali Singh, editor at Houghton Mifflin, was invited to both. Hoping for a repeat invite to Paris next year, she opted for Jerusalem only because it’s biannual.
“I can’t say that I came out with x, y, and z concrete projects,” Singh commented. “The fair was much smaller, much more accessible, a lot of international access, but the environment was almost distracting, there were so many competing forces that it was hard to take it all in.” The competing forces, like taking a dip in the Dead Sea, aren’t too much of a hardship. With the influx of Americans in Jerusalem, Singh also said getting better acquainted with New York colleagues was an unexpected bonus from her sojourn in the Middle East.
Gaga for Goteborg
Just because foreign publishers are bringing us to them, it doesn’t mean they’re tired of traveling. In fact, they’re spending more time at other countries’ regional fairs these days. In Europe, Goteborg, Sweden’s 22 year-old book fair is gaining traction as a pre-Frankfurt Scandinavian rights smorgasbord. More and more German, Dutch, and Baltic publishers who prefer a leisurely look at Scandinavian titles before jumping into the pressure cooker of Frankfurt’s IRC are heading north. For Swedish agent Bengt Nordin, taking care of Scandinavian business ahead of time means he can focus on the rest of the world at Frankfurt.
But publishers aren’t the only ones enthused about Goteborg. In recent years, the number of public visitors during the last three days has hovered at maximum capacity for the venue, around 100,000, and Birgitta Jacobsson Ekblom, PR manager, reported they’re even trying to find a balance by “raising the price and trying to arrange activities to steer the streams of visitors from Saturday to Sunday.”
In Egypt, on the other hand, a 25¢ entrance fee keeps the Cairo International Book Fair accessible for the majority. With few bookstores and a rocky distribution infrastructure, the fair is a necessary trip for everyone from families to students to librarians who trawl the twelve halls, stocking up on enough books to last until the next year. With a reported (and most likely inflated) three million visitors, Cairo takes the cake for biggest fair in the world and it’s taking its status seriously too. While still decidedly focused on the public, the fair has been steadily updating its image, streamlining fairgrounds to make it feel less “bazaar” and more professional. A classy booth honoring Naguib Mahfouz and a spacious international hall are two recent improvements.
Cairo may be blossoming, but Abu Dhabi is the Middle Eastern fair to watch according to Mark Linz, Director of The American University in Cairo Press. “This is Frankfurt at its best,” commented Linz. With Frankfurt’s golden touch, the 17 year-old fair trebled in size in 2007, moving to a multibillion-dollar venue and adding eight book prizes valued at $1.9 million, lending a little red carpet glamour to a formerly dusty market.
The other big UAE fair, Sharjah, remains an important cultural and professional event with a not-too-shabby 228,873 visitors in 2005 (most recent available statistics). No word yet on censorship issues–or burka requirements–in 2007.
Thomas Minkus of the FBF thinks, perhaps not unsurprisingly, that Abu Dhabi is really in the best position to become the leading fair in the Middle East. Minkus said, “One of the key aims of repositioning Abu Dhabi was to help the established fair to evolve from a purely bookselling arena to a full-fledged book business forum.”
Even without the help of Frankfurt, many local fair organizers are trying to turn their cultural salons into export sales and rights fairs. Adding a guest country seems to lend some insta-credibility, though in Bolivia last August, the strategy backfired when Venezuela pulled out as guest of honor after just two days, deeming the fair’s focus “too commercial.” Instead, the malcontents set up renegade booths on the streets of La Paz, giving away over 25,000 free Venezuelan books. That strategy backfired too as most copies ended up being resold by book pirates in other parts of the city.
And while on the subject of the new kid on the block, Bloomsbury’s Liz Calder’s Festa Literária Internacional de Parati, founded in 2003 and located in her favorite Brazilian holiday spot, is not to be missed according to Grove Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin. The festa draws others in the same way as attendance grew 30% between ’06 and ’07.
Back to the Big Ones
Despite the attraction of swimming in the Mediterranean and practicing Portuguese in Brazil, publishers everywhere still agree that Frankfurt, London, and BEA are continously writing their job descriptions, and will be rewriting them for years to come. After the Excel disaster of ’06, London stepped up its game in ’07, causing some to think it’s finally trumped BEA as the leading spring rights fair. “Ten years ago, LBF was take it or leave it, but now it’s necessary,” said Peter McGuigan, co-founder of Foundry Literary and Media. Despite the sticker shock of a trip to London, most U.S. agents and publishers feel compelled to go.
However, a long trip for a short fair makes BEA an expensive, and sometimes redundant, outing for many foreign publishing folk. In fact, larger foreign publishers are looking at BEA as a diplomatic tour reserved for senior executives, dispatching the rank and file to FBF and LBF to broker the bread and butter deals. “We just don’t need three rights fairs. BEA is almost overkill,” said Ira Silverberg of Donadio & Olson.
Through it all, Lance Fensterman, new BEA show director, remains optimistic. As has been customary in the past, the Pacific rim publishers will be well represented next year in L.A. and most of the UK pubs have already re-upped. With European-based, ex-FBF consultant, Rüdiger Wischenbart, BEA is beefing up international PR and expanding its international sales team. Hoping to attract more Asian and Latin American fairgoers, Fensterman said special programming will focus on specific concerns of Asian publishers.
But to ensure success and happiness at any fair, organizers might do well to heed the advice of Vasconcelos of Caderno. “Frankfurt is impossible to miss, but meeting with people there is like speed dating, so fast and impersonal,” he said. “At Turin, the pace is slower, more intimate; there is more quality time to talk to people in a different way, over a beer. There is no pressure to buy anything, no obligation to do anything, but gather ideas coming from everywhere, all around you.”
Which is, after all, what publishing is about.