Why Frankfurt’s Invitation Programme is a Great “Way In” for Small Pubs

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Coleen Higgs

Coleen Higgs participated in the Frankfurt Book Fair Invitation Program in 2012.

Reprinted with permission from the Small Publishers’ Catalogue Africa.

By Colleen Higgs, Publisher, Modjaji Books, South Africa

“If going to a large chain bookstore is a depressing experience for a small publisher – all those shelves and piles of shiny new books – how on earth could taking part in the Frankfurt Book Fair be such a wonderfully encouraging experience? It may seem unlikely but for me, as the publisher at Modjaji Books, visiting the biggest book fair in the world is pure bliss.

‘Frankfurt’ is all about people and meeting or reconnecting with publishing friends from other countries and from home. 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’s wonderful to be in a space where everybody is passionate about and engaged in books, writers, writing. All around you hear people talking about publishing, book design, and all the hot questions about where the book is going. Does the printed book have a future? Will e-books and digital publishing mean the end of books as we know them? How do we make sense of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon?

It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer size and extent of the fairs, the displays, and the programme. Of course one has to be highly selective and even then you will not be able to see everything on your list. 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 publishing e-books to useful royalty software, how to distribute your books in the United States, connect with a similar-sized publisher in New Zealand, Australia or India, or perhaps explore translation opportunities into Flemish, Croatian, or Portuguese.

The year 2012 was my second visit (I also attended in 2011); both times I participated as part of the Invitation Programme of the Frankfurt Book Fair, organized by Corry von Mayenburg of Litprom, a joint project with the German Foreign Office, as well as the Frankfurt Book Fair. My experience would have been quite different if I had attended the Fair without this kind of support and mediation.

The invited publishers participate 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 small publishers from Africa, Asia, and South America. It’s been affirming for me to discover that I’m not alone in the challenge of independent niche publishing. Usually Litrpom invites about twenty-two publishers from countries all over the world.

For ten 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, help each other find our way at the Fair. We share leads and suggestions about what not to miss. We eagerly discuss print runs, contracts, how to sell rights, book design, dealing with tricky authors, leads for selling rights, publishing mistakes and how to fix them, the importance of good design, distribution issues and how to solve them, industry gossip from mainstream connections, and many stories about our work and lives.

The Invitation Programme provides not only a network of new friends, but a home in Hall 5.0 with the Weltempfang (the Centre for Politics, Literature and Translation) nearby, as well as Litprom and the Goethe Institute. Every day sees a wide range of topical discussions and seminars on issues of translation, social justice in publishing, freedom of the press and the writer, the role of the writer and publisher in society. Most of us ‘invitees’ would not be able to attend without the generosity of the Invitation Program. However, many publishers around the world who started as Invitees now attend the Fair regularly, do business and grow to a size that allows them to thrive.

In 2012, I learnt more about the German book market. It’s a highly sophisticated, well-organized 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, and the impact of e-books on trade has been more gradual.

I met at least four other feminist publishers, Susan Hawthorne from Spinifex in Australia, (also a poet) and Urvashi Butalia from Zabaan Books in India (she had participated in the Invitation Programme a couple of times and now goes to Frankfurt fairly regularly). Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the driving force behind Cassava Republic Press from Nigeria, was also in Frankfurt, on another programme, and we met again just before the Fair started at the famous party on the boat. I’d met Bibi in 2009 at the first Jozi Book Fair and then again at the Cape Town Book Fair. We made plans to share ideas, strategies, and find ways to collaborate. Last but not least I reconnected with Hilda Twongyeirwe from Femrite in Uganda.

I polished up my ‘elevator pitch’, talking about several Modjaji authors and titles to other more mainstream publishers, in a way that made them sound sexy, saleable and fabulous. Which they are of course. I learnt how to put aside my diffidence and low-key way of talking about my work. I tried to find a way to focus on the most exciting and distinctive aspects of each title. The pressure and intensity of Frankfurt ‘forced’ me to re-invent myself as someone much more confident, with the gift of the gab!

After browsing the exhibition of best-designed German books, it struck me that we should have an award here in South Africa which recognizes the importance of book design, drawing attention to and promoting good design. Not just covers, but also typography, innovative layout, and design in different categories: fiction, coffee table books, and children’s books. I think the folks at the Frankfurt Book Fair would be only too delighted to assist us in setting one up. Well-designed books don’t have to be expensive; they just have to be thought about with imagination and creativity.

Each year at Frankfurt a country is chosen as the guest of honour: in 2013 it is Brazil, in 2012 it was New Zealand, and the previous year it was Iceland. The Guest of Honour country is given an entire pavilion to showcase their take on books, literature, writers, and reading in their country.

I was deeply moved and inspired by the Iceland exhibition, which conveyed so much about the country and the importance of books and reading in their culture. It offered a quiet space to reflect within the frenetic energy of the Book Fair. Much of the space was presented as several living rooms or home libraries furnished with couches, tables, and bookshelves. The lighting was muted and on the walls there were large posters of people reading – and there would be a moment when you realized the posters were alive – you could see someone’s eye blink or a hand turn a page. Now and then a person would start to read aloud from the book they were reading. The posters were in fact a highly sophisticated kind of video installation. I rediscovered from a new perspective, the quiet joy of reading, by being able to watch these peaceful people reading.

Both years, visiting the Pavilion of the Guest of Honour country was deeply enriching: learning about the country’s culture and literature and being reminded in new and powerful ways why I do this work.”

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.