Books

As blissful as the book business gets to be

Colleen Higgs

If going to a chain bookstore is a depressing experience for a small publisher, how could the Frankfurt Book Fair be an encouraging experience?

A world of books at the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Michael Probst, AP)

IIt may seem unlikely, but for me, as the publisher at Modjaji Books, visiting the biggest book fair in the world is pure bliss.

This year was my second visit; both times I participated it was as part of the invitation programme of the Frankfurt Book Fair, organised by Corry von Mayenburg of Litprom in a joint project with the German foreign office. My experience would have been quite different if I had attended the fair without this kind of support and mediation.

The invited publishers take part  in a two-and-a-half-day preparatory workshop on rights management, book design, marketing and other essential topics. We also get to know each other, all the small publishers from Africa, Asia and South America. It has been affirming for me to discover that I am not alone in the challenge of independent, niche publishing. ­Litprom usually invites about 22 publishers from countries all over the world. For 10 days we live together in the Parkhotel Taunus (just outside Frankfurt) in a sea of language, laughter and shared experiences. We learn from each other and help each other find our way at the fair. We share leads and suggestions about what not to miss.

The invitation programme is a very particular way into the fair, with a network of new friends, a home in Hall 5.0 with the Weltempfang (the Centre for Politics, Literature and Translation) nearby, as well as Litprom and the Goethe-Institut. For most of us “invitees”, attending the fair would not be possible without the generosity of the programme. However, many publishers around the world who started out as invitees now attend the fair regularly, do business and grow to a size that allows them to thrive.

The fair is all about people and meeting or reconnecting with publishing friends from other countries and from home. This year I met Susan Hawthorne from Spinifex (a feminist press) in Australia and Alexander Leborg from Norway, whom I had only met via email and who bought the Norwegian rights to Whiplash by Tracey Farren in 2009. Tainie Mdondo from Apnet, who I have only met at book fairs before, was at the fair and at the hotel.

There were many South Africans;  the publishers were mostly to be found in the famous Hall 8.0 where the English-speaking publishing world exhibits. I saw Sandie Shepherd of UCT Press, Bridget Impey  of Jacana and the folk from Blue Weaver, which is our marketing and distribution agency. I also saw Ben Williams from Books Live, Benoit Knox (BK Publishing) and Phakama Mbonambi (Wordsetc). I also met Zimbabwean writer Tendai Taragiri, until now only a Facebook friend, as well as Veronique Tadjo and Antjie Krog, who were featured on the Weltempfang programme. I got to meet Thomas Brückner (translator of Ivan Vladislavic and Henrietta Rose-Innes’s work into German), who reviewed Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy favourably for Litprom’s online journal.

This year I learned more about the German book market during the seminar programme and at a session at the fair. It is a highly sophisticated, well-organised market and the distribution system is enough to take away the breath of any reader, publisher or librarian. You can order any book in print and have it within 24 to 48 hours, depending on where you live.

They also have a fixed book price system, which means that supermarket chains cannot undermine bookstores with discounted prices. It also means that bookselling is valued as a profession, with the impact of e-books on the trade more gradual than anticipated.

I also learned a little more about fan-fiction and about where to find money for translations, and I was even invited to speak on a panel about publishing and the book world in Africa.

Other highlights for Modjaji Books were that two small British presses came to see whether we had sold the rights to Bom Boy by yet.

Modjaji received much praise for its book covers and Jabulani Means Rejoice was taken by the Unesco team for consideration for the 2014 Book Design Award.

Being at Frankfurt means five days of total immersion in the international book world and discussing and thinking about the questions of the day with others who are equally interested. It is wonderful to be in a space where everybody is interested in, passionate about and engaged in books, writers and writing.

All around you hear people talking about books, book design and all the hot questions about where the book is going. Does the book have a future? How to make sense of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon?

It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer size and extent of the fair, the displays and the programme. Of course, you have to be highly selective and even then you will not be able to do or see all there is, or meet everyone you need to meet.

For any publisher, Frankfurt is the place to be inspired — from new ideas about book design to branding and stationery. You can learn all kinds of best practices — from e-books to useful royalty software and how to distribute your books in the United States. You can  connect with a similar-sized publisher in New Zealand, Australia or India, or perhaps explore translation opportunities in Flemish, Croatian or Portuguese.

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