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Two Dogs / Mercury

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Burnet Media at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Well, that was something.

Anyone who’s been to the world’s biggest book fair, the Frankfurter Buchmesse in Frankfurt, Germany, will know that it’s not exactly a walk in the park. On the contrary, it’s a power march across acres of hall space and past hundreds of publishers’ stands, from one meeting to the next, to a David Nicholls interview half a kilometre away, then perhaps up a couple of floors to see German design books and artwork and then back to the English-language hall to check out more publishers displays via the antiquarian section (interesting!) and then yet another meeting…

I had been sent to Frankfurt by Struik in the past, so I at least knew what to expect, but this was my first time as the publishing director of my own company, Burnet Media. Having started life in 2010, Burnet Media focused initially on South African-specific material; there hadn’t been the need to seriously consider making the trip to Frankfurt. These days we’ve got broader horizons and some titles with genuine global potential. It was time to go international, and thanks to the generosity of Lit Prom’s Invitational Programme, we got the opportunity this year.

Lit Prom is a German organisation that describes itself as a “society for the promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature”. Through its Invitational Programme, every year it takes 20-25 independent publishers from the developing world to Frankfurt to show them ropes. It’s a wonderful philanthropic process and a truly impressive organisational feat, and this year I was lucky to be a part of it.

Before (the night before).

Before (the night before).

After (12 hours later).

After (12 hours later).

 

The Burnet Media stand at Frankfurt 2014.

The Burnet Media stand at Frankfurt 2014.

We arrived five days before the official start of the fair; publishers from Guinea Bissau, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Uruguay, Venezuela, Georgia, Montenegro and Ukraine. And me, from South Africa.

Needless to say, such a gathering tends to open the mind and put the world in perspective. While I worry about the depressed state of trade publishing in South Africa, our bookstore chains’ that hold unhealthy amounts of power over publishers and unapologetic printers that make cover mistakes and miss delivery dates, my fellow independent publishers from around the world had more… varied concerns.

Bryony van der Merwe from our Namibia plies her trade in a country of two million people, the smallest fraction of whom are regular book readers. There are a mere handful of bookstores around the country.

On the other end of the scale, Richard Ali from Nigeria has a potential market of more than 170 million people, yet he must work as a lawyer in his spare time to keep putting out books. “The state does not even care enough to ban books any more,” he laments – a rather different take on censorship to a South African, perhaps, but one that makes sense in a land currently suffering insurrection, terrorism and general dysfunction.

For outright civil war, there are stories from Volodymyr Samoylenko from Ukraine and Marwan Adwan from Syria. Earlier this year Volodmyr’s business partner in Donetsk was kidnapped and ransomed for $5,000. “If it was me, I would not have $5,000 to pay,” he explains with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Marwan doesn’t even live in Syria any more, having escaped to Dubai about a year ago due to safety concerns. Despite an ongoing war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, he aims to keep publishing in Syria while keeping as much of the process as possible in-country – not always easy when printers, warehouses and your general reading population are being shelled. “They are struggling and fighting each other,” he says. “I am publishing books.”

Despite our vast cultural and circumstantial differences, the attendees of the Invitational Programme are of course bound together by their common cause: a love of books and a desire to create them. At times the cross-cultural assemblage was almost comical – a Puerto Rican, a Nigerian and a South African walk into a room…– but when the Puerto Rican, Nigerian and South African end up finding common cause in the difficulty of dealing with book returns, finding the magic number on a POD print run, or handling egotistical authors who think their book is the only one you’re working on at the moment – well, then it all makes sense.

After five days of seminars, workshops, boat trips on the Main and general acclimatisation, the Book Fair itself kicked off. Suffice it to say, it was as frenetic and entertaining as ever, both soul-uplifting and sole-destroying. Miles were walked, meetings were taken, doors were opened.

A personal highlight was my opportunity to see where “the real deals get done” before the fair even begins, when I met a German publisher at the swanky Frankfurterhof Hotel in the centre of town. I arrived shortly before the president of Finland (with a 12-motorbike escort; Finland was this year’s guest of honour), and my 25-minute meeting took place standing up and jammed in the corner of a plush lounge area with dozens of similar meetings going on about us.

The good news? South African crime-thriller writers are the flavour of the month in Germany. And the bad? It will be a couple of months before we discover if anything comes of this meeting and the various others I had.

But after my time with the courageous souls of the Invitational Programme, I’m rather optimistic.

My sincere thanks for an intense, wonderful and exhausting experience to all my fellow attendees on Invitational Programme, and of course to the Lit Prom organisers and facilitators, particularly Corry, Doris, Bernadette and Torsten. Any independent South African publisher looking for the best possible introduction to the Frankfurt Book Fair would do well to look up Corry von Mayenburg, the driving force behind the Invitational Programme. Contact us for details.

Invitational Programme members having a bit of fun amid 10 days of mayhem.

Invitational Programme members having a bit of fun amid 10 days of mayhem.

Interesting book cover presented by Invitational Programme attendee Ronny Agustinus of Indonesia's Marjin Kiri publishers. The cover of the book, about the destruction of books, is laser cut to appear as if it has been burnt.

Interesting book cover presented by Invitational Programme attendee Ronny Agustinus of Indonesia’s Marjin Kiri publishers. The cover of the book, about the destruction of books, is laser cut to appear as if it has been burnt.

The Frankfurterhof Hotel in downtown Frankfurt, where the "real deals" get done.

The Frankfurterhof Hotel in downtown Frankfurt, where the “real deals” get done.

 

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