By Evangelia Avloniti
When the first Thessaloniki Book Fair was held in Thessaloniki — Greece’s second largest city — in May 2004, the majority of Greeks were busy living the carefree existence that their seemingly stable economy could afford them. The present was smooth and the future seemed glorious; the 2004 Olympic Games were only two months away, and most middle-class Greeks were deliberating about where to spend their summer holidays. For a nation of reluctant readers, the book market was flourishing. With over 1,100 active publishing houses in existence, the choice for the affluent book-buying 8% was limitless. Why buy one if you can buy five? Dystopia belonged strictly in the realm of the literary imagination, if that.
The Thessaloniki Book Fair promised to be the meeting point for the East and West; a unique opportunity to bring together Greek and foreign publishers and agents and the reading public. And for the first few years — which coincided happily with the height of the international credit boom — it almost succeeded. Greek publishers and agents responded to the call enthusiastically, whereas a good number of foreign publishers and agents attended the fair through the Guest of Honor initiative.
Marleen Seegers, owner of the California-based 2Seas Literary Agency, remembers: “It was May, 2008, France was the Guest of Honor country at Thessaloniki, and I was still working at Editions Stock when I received an invitation to attend the fair through the Bureau International de l’Edition Francaise. When I left Paris, my schedule was almost empty; the Greek publishers with whom I had proposed meetings hadn’t been very responsive. But once I got there, our Greek co-agent, Niki Douge, introduced me to everyone, and suddenly my schedule was packed with on-the-spot meetings.”
Asked to compare the Thessaloniki Book Fair to other international fairs, Marleen says: “It was a much more relaxed experience (and also chaotic, in a good way). But I am not sure I would have found the experience a pleasant one had I not been accompanied by our co-agent. There wasn’t a rights center I could have used to fall back on.”
Unsurprisingly, the fair was already falling prey to the usual daemons of Modern Greek mentality; negligence and lack of planning. And with no efficient long-term follow-up, most visits from foreign agents and publishers turned out to be one-offs. By the time the Greek crisis struck in 2009, the situation was steadily getting worse, culminating in the closure of the National Book Centre of Greece (EKEVI) in January 2013. Set up in 1994 to promote reading nationally and Greek books internationally, EKEVI was also responsible for the organisation of the Thessaloniki Book Fair. For the first time in its 10-year-old existence the fair was in danger of closure, a catastrophe that was averted at the last minute in early spring 2014, when the organization of the fair was incorporated into the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.
For Nondas Papagerorgiou, publisher of Metaichmio, “these days, the fair’s international focus seems to have been abandoned as everything is organized hurriedly without any good foreground planning. When foreign authors, publishers and agents are invited at the last minute, it is only logical that you will not be able to guarantee the presence of important names. It is equally expected that the fair will not be operating as fertile ground for making deals with foreign publishers and agents.” Thanos Psychogios, publisher of Psychogios, is even more pessimistic: “The Thessaloniki Book Fair has no international character or even commercial interest for Greek publishers, which is largely a consequence of the emergence of new technologies. Foreign publishers’ and agents’ attendance is almost non-existent, save for the obligatory presence of the Guest of Honor country.” Nikos Argyris, the new generation of historic publishing house, Ikaros, observes: “Sadly, the fair’s international focus has been lost. These days the fair’s success is measured by the number of retail sales it achieves for Greek publishers.”
For Anna Pataki, publisher of Patakis, not all is necessarily lost: “Public attendance is impressive, and there is a lot of scope for further growth of the international part of the fair.” Yet, she agrees that “with the savage closure of EKEVI by the Ministry of Culture, there is a vital need for an effective state institution to take over not only the organization of the fair but also all matters relating to books and reading, including the Frasis translation funding program for Greek books, which is now defunct. There is no point mulling over past mistakes, other than to plan a better future for books in Greece bearing in mind that institutions need consistency and continuity.”
In a country with unemployment at a record 28% and above 60% for those under 24, and a monumental debt burden, which at 175% of GDP is by far the highest in the EU, it remains to be seen whether such future planning and consistency is feasible. Marleen Seegers seems hopeful: “Once the market has become more stable I would like to go back again, for the first time as an independent foreign rights agent, to check in with everyone again.”
For her part, Nopi Chatzigeorgiou, former employee of EKEVI and current coordinator of the Thessaloniki Book Fair at the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, is doing her best — following many difficult months of uncertainty — to build more solid foundations for the fair in the years to come. It is a lonely crusade for her and her hard-working colleagues. As Nondas Papageorgiou rightly notes, in Greece “initiatives seem to be taken on the basis of the loyalty and spirit of the few.” A state of affairs fit for any dystopian novel worth its name.
Evangelia Avloniti formed the Ersilia Literary Agency in 2009, and works as a literary agent representing Greek authors in Greece and worldwide, and foreign agents and publishers in Greece.