In Jerusalem, A “Retreat” for Editors, Agents and Scouts

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The 30th anniversary celebrations of the Zev Birger Jerusalem Fellowship at the Museum for Islamic Art on Monday February 19th, with (clockwise): Esther Margolis, Yoel Kakov, Zev Birger's sons, Markus Dohle and Stefan von Holtzbrinck. Copyright Dudi Saad

The 30th anniversary celebrations of the Zev Birger Jerusalem Fellowship at the Museum for Islamic Art on Monday February 9th, with (clockwise): Jean Mattern, Esther Margolis, in front in black, Yoel Makov, Zev Birger’s sons, Markus Dohle and Stefan von Holtzbrinck. (Photo: Dudi Saad)

For the 30th Jerusalem Book Fair Fellowship Program, 35 alumni — editors, agents and scouts — joined 39 new fellows for a week of professional networking.

By Evangelia Avloniti and Stephanie Barrouillet

Sunday, February 8 marked the official opening of the 27th biennial Jerusalem International Book Fair (JIBF) at the YMCA Hall where the Albanian author Ismail Kadare was awarded the prestigious Jerusalem Prize for “express[ing] in his writing the freedom of the Individual in Society.” The opening party inaugurated the new book fair venue, The First Station, Jerusalem’s newly renovated historic 120-year-old train station and a new cultural hub at the crossroads between the Old City and its modern neighborhood.

Book Fair Coordinator Idit Ben Or explained that the decision to move from the fair’s long-time home at the International Convention Center (“Binyanei Hauma”) to The First Station forms part of an initiative to rebrand the JIBF. This year’s program headed by Yael Shefer, the fair’s new artistic director, offered thirty free events open to the public including evening sessions aimed at students and younger people. The events were spread across six leading cultural institutions including the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Mishkenot Sha’ananim and the Khan Theatre.

Celebrating Thirty Years of the JIBF Fellowship

The JIBF Fellowship – the first of its kind in the world – which celebrated this year its thirtieth anniversary also underwent a few changes. Funded by the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, it was renamed the Zev Birger Editorial and Agent Fellowship in memory of former JIBF Chairman Zev Birger (1926-2011) and introduced a full three-day alumni program which welcomed back 35 editors, agents and scouts for a series of professional discussions and an intimate lunch with author, David Grossman. Dvora Negbi, Foreign Literature Coordinator at Am Oved Publishers, mentioned that “in the alumni program this year, both the personal and professional relationships deepened.” For Negbi, the highlight of the alumni program was the lunch with Israeli author David Grossman “whose profound words shall stay with me for years to come.”

It was Esther Margolis, President and majority owner of Newmarket Publishing and Communications and Newmarket Press, who in 1983 first came up with the proposal for the biennial JIBF “to become an ‘editors’ fair’ and to grant fellowships to working editors for an exchange of ideas and business practices in the special Jerusalem environment.” An idea which would have not been realised so successfully, “without the superhuman efforts of the late Zev Birger, the Fair’s director for almost 30 years who immediately saw its benefits and the excellent work by current JIBF director Yoel Makov (who was Zev Birger’s deputy for more than 20 years), this year’s Fellowship coordinator, Idit Ben Or, and artistic director, Yael Schefer.”

Since its inception in 1985 the JIBF fellowship has brought together hundreds of promising publishing professionals (including editors, agents and scouts) from around the world. This year, 39 fellows from 16 countries took part in a week-long event-packed program. “It was wonderful to see a relatively small book fair with such a broad international appeal. Having experienced several fellowships, I think Jerusalem was unique, since it enables energetic networking and still combines it with such a great emphasis on culture and history,” shared publisher Aleksi Siltala from Siltala Publishing in Finland. Literary Scout Anne Vial at Anne Vial Literary Scouting, added: “Jerusalem was inspiring and eye-opening, in more ways than one. What a luxury to spend one week at an international editorial retreat, stealing away from real life for an intense and action-packed seminar in an ancient, magical and complex country.”

Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House and Jean Mattern, writer and editor at Editions Gallimard and former fellow himself, received the Friends of the Jerusalem Book Fair Award for their devotion to the JIBF in a ceremony gathering all the fellows and alumni. The Zev Birger Fellowship and Alumni program also saw the participation of key international publishing figures — Stefan von Holtzbrinck, Co-owner, Chairman and CEO of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, Markus Dohle, CEO at Penguin Random House, Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., and Esther Margolis.

Group Photo of the Zev Birger Jerusalem Fellows.

Group Photo of the Zev Birger Jerusalem Fellows.

Seminars and Discussions at the Zev Birger Fellowship and Alumni Program

In an animated talk that centered on creativity and reach, and in which fellows and alumni were encouraged to contribute their own answers and ideas, Markus Dohle spoke about the importance of increasing relevance in our globalized fragmented digitalized world. The ebook hype might have passed, he reminded his audience, but book discovery has changed and publishers must find a way to compete with giant internet-based retailers. “We need to give readers’ guidance and orientation,” he argued. “In a world of fewer bookshops we must maximize reach and refocus on the core: nurturing original ideas into high quality books…Publishers need to expand digital retail and availability, get more support from the supply-chain marketing and rely on very good distribution centers,” he added. “It is important to also enhance our service levels for authors. Give them reasons to stay with traditional publishers.”

Refocusing on the core of publishing in a fast-paced world in which there is increasingly less space for books was at the centre of the round-table discussion between Stefan von Holtzbrinck, Markus Dohle, Esther Margolis and Richard Charkin. Von Holtzbrinck expressed his concerns about media consumption and the difficulties in getting young people to read. Richard Charkin highlighted the loss of list building, the short duration of author contracts and the changing idea of ownership in publishing. “It is the agents and not the publishers that own most rights now,” he stressed, adding that publishing professionals must not forget that “we are service providers in the value chain of things.” Esther Margolis underlined the importance of supporting books over a period of months and not just for a short period of time as has become the norm. “We cannot be connecting only by email and texting and our devices,” she said. “We have to get out there and get involved. We must nurture the relationship between authors, publishers, agents and the public.”

Publishing in Israel Had a Tough 2014

One of the recurring themes in most discussions was the current state of Israeli publishing. “2014 was an extremely difficult year for Israeli publishing, perhaps one of the worst years ever, at least in recent history,” said Rena Rossner from the Deborah Harris Agency in Jerusalem. “The combination of the Gaza war, the near-collapse (and subsequent sale) of our largest bookstore chain, Steimatzky, and the passing of the fixed price law in our territory, all contributed to a tremendous amount of uncertainty in our market and a drastic drop in sales. One of the current challenges is that the fixed price law left a loophole – it didn’t regulate the discounts that the bookstore chains can require from publishing houses, and that is the part of the law that is the most challenging right now. However, our market is already showing signs of recovery, and we hope that the fixed price law, despite its flaws, will ultimately mean a better future for publishing in Israel.”

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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.