The Jerusalem Book Fair’s Midlife Crisis: Taking Stock at 50

In the fiftieth year since its founding, the 26th biannual Jerusalem International Book Fair (JIBF) hosted 5 days of exhibits, panels, and literary events from February 10-February 15, 2013. More than 400 publishers from 30 countries exhibited, and the visitor head-count for the week exceeded 45,000. Amid jubilee celebration, though, a growing contingent of long-time participants feels strongly that this venerable event must change. While publishing is all about dramatic demands for change these days, ideas for transforming the JIBF are, on the whole, fairly straightforward. “The 2013 Fair absolutely confirmed the impression that many of us have held over the last several years that this should no longer be a book fair but a literary festival,” says Jerusalem-based agent Deborah Harris, who is a longtime contributor to JIBF programming. The reasons for such a shift are deeply rooted in Israel’s own publishing and literary landscape, along with the growing global circuit of events for publishing professionals.

The JIBF has always been “less about the Israeli book business and more about the [international] ‘JIBF family’” that has gathered for the occasion over the years, says Deborah Harris. However, Ziv Lewis, Foreign Rights Manager for Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing, points out that no matter how international the “JIBF Family”, the fact that some of the largest Israeli publishers chose not to exhibit at the 2013 JIBF “was a striking aspect of this year’s event.” The rights market that the JIBF offers is negligible, and with the value of books so diminished in the eyes of the public through the Israeli national chain stores’ discounting war, there is less incentive for the public to show up and buy books.  As well, publishers have fewer resources to travel from Tel Aviv (the center of Israeli publishing) and buy exhibit space.  Even if the emphasis is more international than local, a Fair that fails to serve the basic needs of the domestic industry hardly seems to live up to its promise as a viable business destination; many of the exhibits in the international hall this year were national literary or cultural organizations (“Books from Romania” or “Books from Hungary”, etc), as opposed to major international publishers there on business.

On the bright side, the Israeli reading public has a proven interest in literary events and activities. “The most interesting recent trend,” says Nilli Cohen, Director of the Institute of the Translation of Hebrew Literature, “is the growing number of debut novels published every year [in combination] with the growing wave of literary and creative writing workshops.” Then there’s Hebrew Book Week, held every June, which is widely agreed to be the yearly highlight for the consumer of Hebrew books. Even though the price-control law currently debated in the Knesset will need to pass before any significant change can happen for the Israeli publishing industry, Ziv Lewis calls Hebrew Book Week a major accomplishment, even globally speaking: “Where else in the world do publishers set aside one week out of the year to go into every part of the country to meet and sell directly to their readers?” he asks.

As for the strongest component of the JIBF itself, everyone paints the Fair’s Zev Birger Editorial and Agent Fellowship in the most glowing terms. “It’s such a different pace from meetings and deals at Frankfurt, and yet making these lasting connections is equally at the heart of our profession,” says literary scout Bettina Schrewe, who participated in the 2009 program. Since its founding in 1985, “the Fellowship’s blend of time spent with international colleagues, conversing and visiting important Israeli cultural sites has perfected the JIBF’s brand of culturally-oriented (vs rights-oriented) professionalism,” says Esther Margolis, Executive Editor of Newmarket Press and Chair of the JIBF American Advisory Committee. The 2013 Fellowship hosted 47 participants from 19 countries, with a greater contingent from Asian countries than ever before, and the Fellowship Alumnae program, headed up by US JIBF representative Philip Rappaport (an editor at Open Road) extends the more structured benefits of the Fellowship to alumnae who choose to return.

Transforming the Jerusalem Book Fair into a literary or publishing “Festival” would acknowledge that its cultural strengths outweigh its draw as a deal-making destination. Deborah Harris points out that the international legacy of the Fair and Fellowship are excellent starting places for things like “a more sophisticated, international Literary Café [and events] set in venues that …can reach the audiences of both East and West Jerusalem.” Not only are all these things worth maintaining, says Esther Margolis, but “in a world of increasingly high-powered business conferences, and more business done remotely, the Jerusalem Book Fair’s emphasis on ‘old-fashioned’ relationship building is more valuable—and vital—than ever before.”

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  1. […] Do We Have A Mid-Life Crisis? […]

  2. […] many small book fairs around the world (see our recent articles on the Buenos Aires and Jerusalem Book Fairs for a few examples), the Seoul International Book Fair (SIBF), a once domestic and […]

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