Book Fair Fights to Put Colombia Firmly on the Literary Map

In Growth Markets by Andrés Delgado Darnalt

Encuentro Internacional de Periodismo: Gunter Walraff (Germany) and Astrid Harders (Colombia) // Photo: Iván Herrera

Encuentro Internacional de Periodismo: Gunter Walraff (Germany) and Astrid Harders (Colombia). Photo: Iván Herrera

By Andrés Delgado Darnalt

BOGOTA: The two most iconic figures of English and Spanish literature, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, both allegedly died during the same April in the year 1616. It is one of those rare coincidences that spring out in literary history and that link two of the most widely-spoken languages on the planet today.

For Spanish speakers, both in Spain and in Hispanic Latin American countries, April is the time of the year to celebrate their mother tongue. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of the emblematic El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha – considered the foundational work in Spanish — passed away on April 23rd, 1616, which has been celebrated as the Día del Libro y del Idioma (Book and Language Day) in Spanish-speaking countries for more than 80 years.

It was actually a Spanish-born writer, Vicente Clavel Andrés (1888-1967), who back in 1926 had the idea of celebrating books and language every 23rd of April as a way to pay homage to Cervantes and to celebrate the work of Spanish-speaking writers from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, the UN also notes the importance of this date and picked April 23rd as World Book Day, which is celebrated in the UK and the United States by giving books away, among other celebrations.


So if April is about celebrating literature worldwide, who could possibly disagree on choosing April as the month in which to celebrate Hispanic publishing? That is what the organizers of the Feria International del Libro de Bogota (FILBO) — or the Bogota International Book Fair, in English — set out to do back in 1988, as a response to a growing need of local publishing houses to showcase the talent of Colombian and Latin American writers and poets to a public that was hungry for even more significant literary events. All of this takes place in the Colombian capital, Bogota, a city which Spanish writer Marcelino Melendez Pelayo (1856-1912) noted at the end of the 19th century that was destined to become the “South American Athens” (Atenas Suramericana) as a consequence of what he saw to be the considerable literary culture of its citizens.

FILBO: A Colombian Cultural Asset

FILBO has been organized from the beginning by two commercial partners: the Colombian Book Chamber (Cámara Colombiana del Libro), a private association of Colombian publishers, book distributors and librarians that seeks to represent the interests of the local book publishing industry before the government and other local industries; and the Bogota International Exhibition Center (Corferias), a private organization for the promotion of industrial, social, cultural and commercial development in Colombia and the Andean region through the organization of fairs, exhibitions and events.

Throughout 26 uninterrupted years, the fair has increasingly worked with both public and private partners in devising the cultural program. The fair has always been focused on catering to the general public, unlike professionally focused book fairs like London, LIBER and Frankfurt. Accordingly, it has partnered with the Ministry of Culture, Bogotá Mayor’s Office, Proexport Colombia, Fundación Rafael Pombo (a charity organization that promotes reading among children) and Colsubsidio (a Colombian family compensation fund), among other public and private entities, to organize the cultural program aimed not only at book industry professionals but also at adults, youth and children.

For this year, the success of the fair has brought in the support of the Bogota Chamber of Commerce, the National Statistics Office, the Bogota Energy Company, and the Official Colombian Brand, Co. Also, Señal Colombia, the Colombian public television channel, and Invest in Bogota, the investment promotion agency for the city, joined the initiative.

The popularity of the fair among the general public and both local and foreign businessmen has been growing steadily since its inception in 1988, up to the point of playing a key role in the designation of Bogota as World Book Capital 2007 by the UNESCO. The government has also ensured its endurance in the Colombian cultural world by declaring it as a “cultural event of national character and interest” in the Colombian Book Law, Law 98 of 1993. Today, it is considered the third book fair in importance in Latin America (after Guadalajara and Buenos Aires, which takes place almost simultaneously with FILBO) and the first in the Andean region (which covers Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia).

Portugal as Guest of Honor Country

Front of Portugal's pavilion // Photo: Andrés Delgado

Front of Portugal’s pavilion. Photo: Andrés Delgado

The presence of a foreign country as the guest of honor — which has been a feature of the fair since 1991 — has allowed local book industry professionals to network with foreign publishers, strike book deals and forge commercial bonds between the two countries. It is also a privileged window for the guest of honor to showcase its book industry as well as its culture and other industries, for which they are assigned a special pavilion at the venue.

The choice of the guest of honor country has not been limited to South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela) but it has also stretched to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean (France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom) and the Caribbean Sea (Caribbean region, Central American region and the United States). Even far-flung Asian countries such as the People’s Republic of China and Japan have participated as guests of honor in 2005 and 2008, respectively.

At the 2013 Bogota International Book Fair, which took place last week, from April 18th to May 1st, all eyes were fixed on Portugal, a fitting follower to last year’s guest of honor, Brazil, which hints at the Colombian book industry’s interest in strengthening commercial and cultural relationships with Portuguese speakers both in America and Europe. Portugal’s Chief of State, Anibal Cavaco Silva, presided over the opening ceremony of the book fair with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and brought along a cultural delegation of 23 poets and writers, including Vasco Graça Moura, Ana Luísa Amaral, Fernando Pinto de Amaral, Gastão Cruz and Nuno Júdice, among others. Illustrators, architects, comedians, musicians and, of course, publishers and librarians also formed part of the Portuguese contingent visiting Bogota. Visitors to Portugal’s pavilion enjoyed a celebration of the country’s long and rich cultural heritage, which included a library of more than 20,000 books in Portuguese in Spanish, along with 32 Spanish translations of Portuguese titles supported by the Portuguese government and the Camoes Institute.

A key literary figure of Portuguese culture was absent from the event but could not possibly have been overlooked by the official delegation: Jose Saramago (1922-2010), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 and author of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and Blindness, among other works. To celebrate his legacy his widow, Pilar del Río, who presides over the Jose Saramago Foundation, attended the book fair’s opening ceremony and delivered a lecture on her husband’s work.

For the moment, no official figures of general public attendance to the fair have been released as they will be revealed once the event comes to an end. However, the challenge for the organizers was to outperform the attendance figure from last year, when around 415,000 people visited the fair over the 14 days.

Typically, entrance to the fair is ticketed and only accredited journalists, businessmen, special guests, exhibitors and public school students are allowed free entrance, something that works as a safety measure for the book fair’s personnel. However, La Noche de los Libros (Books Night), offered free entrance from 6:00 pm till 12:00 am to the fair on the night of Friday, April 26th. According to publishers and exhibitors, long queues of people were already lining up well before doors opened 6:00 pm. Each year, the Noche de los Libros has helped boost public attendance figures; last year some 64,254 visitors came on that single night alone.

Mixing Business and Literature

A literary event at José Asunción Silva auditorium. Photo: Iván Herrera

A literary event at the José Asunción Silva auditorium // Photo: Iván Herrera

This year’s fair was once again sponsored by Ecopetrol, the largest petroleum company in Colombia, a successful partnership that allowed the organizers to bring in over 120 foreign writers and deliver more than 800 cultural events. On the commercial side, more than 400 local and foreign publishers, book distributors and libraries of both non-consumer (educational, academic, STM and professional publishing) and consumer books (trade, children’s and reference publishing) exhibited for the general public. According to official figures, the exhibitors represented over 98% of the Colombian publishing market.

Proexport, the Colombian government’s agency for the promotion of non-traditional exports, was in charge of the organization of the business events, which brought together local publishers, books distributors and librarians with international buyers and literary agents, making it the ideal occasion for networking and striking business deals. More than 4,500 local and international buyers received accreditation to the fair, and although no official figures have been released yet, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to take last year fair’s results as a reference: in 2012, the business rounds generated some US$20.4 million in business.

But business wasn’t the only focus. Under the motivational title of Conversaciones que le cambiarán la vida (Conversations that will change your life), the organizers pieced together an attractive literary agenda that celebrated local and international literature.

Possibly the key invitee to the fair was French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008 and the first Nobel writer to attend the Bogota book fair. Colombian novelists such as Oscar Collazos, Jorge Franco, Santiago Gamboa, Julio Paredes, Laura Restrepo and Juan Gabriel Vasquez attracted swarms of people to their events. And the foreign literary figures were an integral part of the fair’s cultural program, including such notables as Cees Noteboom (Netherlands), Juan José Millas (Spain), Luiz Ruffato (Brazil), John Katzenbach (United States), Lila Azam Zanganeh (France), Sebastiá Jovani (Spain), Fernando Savater (Spain) and Valerie Miles (United States). Poetry was also at the forefront with poets such as Ida Vitale (Uruguay), Arturo Carrera (Argentina), Pedro Serrano (México), Tedi López (México), Juan Manuel Roca (Colombia) and Juan Felipe Robledo (Colombia) reciting their verses.

Training and Seminars

Inside of a commercial pavilion // Photo: Iván Herrera

Inside of a commercial pavilion. Photo: Iván Herrera

As the most important gathering point for local book industry businessmen, illustrators and authors in Colombia, the fair has always thrived to provide them with an eye-catching, tailored agenda of training events, forums and conferences on various aspects of the book industry. On this occasion the fair supplied book professionals with a myriad of events, of which three stood out for their focus on training:

For those keen on images, the Primer Congreso de Literatura Dibujada eLeDé (First Seminar of Graphic Literature eLeDé) sought to contextualize and discuss the growing importance of literature told through images and text, their relation with education and their legitimacy as a source of culture. Lecturers at the event included graphic designers, publishers, teachers and authors from Switzerland and Colombia.

The Encuentro Internacional de Periodismo: El periodismo colombiano en el mundo (International Journalism Conference: Colombian journalism in the world), brought together a group of Colombian journalists who decided to continue their careers abroad. These journalists, currently working for CNN, America TV Peru, The Miami Herald, French Press Agency, The Cataluña Newspaper, El Pais and ESPN, shared their work experiences in foreign countries with local journalists and media students. In a social and political context where corruption and concealment of the facts is the order of the day, the relentlessness of Colombian journalists in a constant search for the truth has lead them to scale up in international media and to reach powerful positions. To open the conference, German journalist Gunter Walraff, famous for embedding himself with sources (author of the bestselling work Lowest of the Low, published in 1985), delivered the opening lecture entitled El oficio de un periodista comprometido (The profession of a committed journalist).

Finally, the Colombian Book Chamber launched Foros del libro (Book Forums), a long-term training program that aims to promote the development and innovation of the Colombian publishing industry through tailored workshops and lectures delivered by local and foreign speakers. The Chamber had already held successful seminars on e-book publishing, current trends in book publishing and book marketing in previous fairs (the proceedings are available free online) and Foros del Libro seeks to cover all these and future training programs under the same umbrella.

Within this new framework, the book fair offered a transversal, wide-range view of the book industry value chain through the Encuentro de Formación de Editores, a series of speaking sessions on five core subjects: independent publishing, literary agencies, bookshops, book markets in Colombia and e-publishing. Well-known figures of the European book industry such as Spanish publisher Manuel Borrás (Pre-textos), literary agents Antonia Kerrigan (Spain) and Nicole Witt (Germany), French bookseller Jean Paul Collet (La Bouchérie) and Spanish ebook consultant Silvano Gozzer (Anatomía de Red) shared their views with Colombian colleagues.

Independents Offer New Route Through the Fair

As for new publishers in the Colombian market, the local book industry has been witnessing for the last five years the appearance of new publishers of literature, art, poetry, essays, comic books, journalism and history, both in print and e-book form, who by their small size and disconnection with the big foreign multinationals have come to name themselves as “independent publishers” and have started to attend local and international book fairs as a distinguishable group. For this 26th book fair the group — 13 small publishers and libraries — decided to stand out from the publishing crowd and carpet their selling stands at the book fair with green carpet, so anyone attentive enough to tilt their head down while walking along the third pavilion’s corridors would catch sight of those belonging to this selective group.

This colored-marked route — which stood out visually from the traditional gray-colored carpet covering the floors of the rest of the exhibitors– was named by its creators La Ruta de la Independencia (The Independence Route), a name that also hints at the recent bicentennial celebrations of independence from Spanish colonization throughout Latin American countries. Their aim, according to their Facebook page, is to offer “alternative readings to those who come to the 2013 Bogota Book Fair,” in a world where “the book universe is going through a revolution, where technology and speed is forcing us to take on new challenges and rethink the way we approach to books.”

Future versions of the Bogota International book fair will prove if these two initiatives — the literature and business program, and the Independence Route — are successful in bringing a new waft of air to the event, possibly the oldest and most important literary festival in Colombia. An official press release announced recently that Peru will be the guest of honor country for the 27th version in 2014. A new work cycle, it seems, is already starting for Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary and language descendants in Colombia.

Andrés Delgado Darnalt is a Colombian journalist who has worked with the Colombian Book Chamber, the Iberoamerican Publishers Association, the Museum of Fine Arts — Houston and the Fundación Gilberto Alzate Avendaño. You can follow him on Twitter at @andeldar.
About the Author

Andrés Delgado Darnalt


Andrés Delgado Darnalt is a Colombian journalist based in Bogotá, where he studied social communication at Javeriana University. He obtained his MBA from London School of Commerce-Cardiff Metropolitan University, and has studied at the Book Publishing Training Center. He has worked in events and public relations with the Bogotá International Book Fair (FILBO) as well as with other companies and public offices, and he has served as a project editor and consultant in digital and academic publishing.