Slovenia’s Miha Kovač on ‘The Importance of Smaller Markets’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Interview: ‘We want to help more publishers to engage in rights sales,’ says Guest of Honor Slovenia curator Miha Kovač.

Miha Kovač, curator of the 2023 Frankfurter Buchmesse Guest of Honor Slovenia events, speaks in Frankfurt Pavilion at the program’s press conference. Image: FBM

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also today: Frankfurt Names the Philippines Its 2025 Guest of Honor

Miha Kovač: ‘Visibility, Visibility, Visibility’
Ask the curator of Frankfurter Buchmesse‘s Guest of Honor Slovenia program (October 18 to 22) what the three main challenges are in selling the rights to Slovenian literature, and Miha Kovač replies with the perfect timing of a vaudevillian: “Visibility, visibility, visibility.”

Kovač is a publishing professor at the University of Ljubljana. He’s the Slovenian curator for the upcoming “Honeycomb of Words” guest of honor pavilion and its programming. He has become a fast favorite of Frankfurt staffers working for many months with the Slovenian team to organize and prepare this year’s program.

The listing you’ll find here of professional programming elements for Guest of Honor Slovenia hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out with all its components and speakers, but is near to completion.

Kovač is joined in his role as Slovenian curator by German curator Matthias Göritz and program consultant Amalija Maček. With the Slovenian Book Agency JAK, they’re preparing to clarify for the international rights-trading community just what it is about Slovenian literature that makes it something that can “travel.”

With Frankfurt’s sold-out Literary Agents and Scouts Center, and its sprawling show floors of the work of publishers from so many parts of the world, the 75th-anniversary Frankfurt this year will celebrate being a place in which many markets have found new footholds in the world’s translation-rights marketplace by going through the years-long complexities of appearing as a guest-of-honor nation at Frankfurt.

“At this very moment, our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough translators to German.”Miha Kovač, Guest of Honor Slovenia

With so much polish and professionalism going into October’s presentation, it may surprise trade visitors and exhibitors that as recently as the 1980s, “There were almost no translations from Slovenian to other languages,” Kovač says.

The country was still part of then-Yugoslavia (from 1945). While today vested as a member both of NATO and of the European Union, Slovenia saw its books get some traction in Serbian and Croatian—”and a few authors who made it to German by themselves,” Kovač says. But only after the 1991 independence did “the ministry of culture start to allocate money for workshops for translators.”

That was the key move needed because Slovenian is a small language spoken by an estimated 1.9 million people. Not only is it not spoken, read, or written by many people, but there may be very few professional translators equipped to take Slovenian into other tongues and territories.

“At this very moment,” Kovač says, “our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough translators to German.” That’s significant because one of the first benefits of Frankfurt’s program is that many of the German market’s inquisitive publishers become interested in the work of an incoming guest of honor at Frankfurt.

Having started by inventorying what was actually being translated from Slovenian–and finding little–Kovač was pleased to see that the translation-grant stimulation from the government by around 2008 had built the number of Slovenian works going into other languages to about 70 annually. In fact, that might have been only 20 or 25 distinct titles, he says, but once each of them had made it into a much larger language in world publishing, it could snowball: found and picked up by scouts, agents, rights directors, and editors in other languages.

Then, as now, the big break can often be a translation into English because so many world publishing-house specialists can then read it.

‘Books That Are Salable Abroad’

Miha Kovač at the June 2023 press conference in Frankfurt for the Guest of Honor Slovenia program. Image: FBM

By 2015, Kovač says, “This idea of a Frankfurt guest of honor had popped out. At first, I strongly opposed it. I had this idea that we don’t have enough money, that we don’t have enough titles.”

But with investment continuing for networking among world publishing players, enabling Slovenian authors to travel, within the last four or five years Kovač says he has at last seen as many as 200 or so translations being made of Slovenian work annually—those 200 being produced from a smaller number of books, he says, which “snowball” once they have a couple of starter translations to gain visibility.

“It sounds funny but our top author is a philosopher. I’d say that in the last 10 years, he’s been responsible for 20 percent of all Slovenian translations.”Miha Kovač, Guest of Honor Slovenia

“Basically,” he says, “we’re now producing about 50 to 70 books a year that would be translatable.” As those 70 or so books find their way into other languages, they attract more rights deals to reach the 200-sales mark.

Children’s Books, and Philosophy

The largest number of Slovenia’s “translatable” titles, as with many markets, is in children’s books. Kovač estimates that of the 70 in the annual translatable group—books that will travel—some 45 may be children’s books, and often with illustrations.

Then he raises his hands over his head and says, “It sounds funny but our top author is a philosopher–with most of his translations in the Slavic region. He’s really the king. I’d say that in the last 10 years, he’s been responsible for 20 percent of all Slovenian translations.” Slavoj Žižek, sometimes called a “celebrity philosopher” and sometimes “the Elvis of cultural theory,” owes much to a lively, often ribald persona in appearances. At times he writes in English, which also helps his books find readers. And his body of work is said to exceed 50 titles.

Žižek is to appear on Frankfurt Friday, October 20 at 7 p.m., in a program called “Ideology Critique. Today! The Ljubljana School (of psychoanalysis) Meets the Frankfurt School (of critical theory).” The event is expected “to critically discuss and test the potentials, limitations, and insights of different approaches to the critique of ideology today, in the face of a world in disarray.”

For the most part, however, Kovač says, one of Slovenia’s strengths, poetry, isn’t as prominent as it might be for the guest of honor program, adding that an anthology of Slovenian poetry is finding itself into some German store windows. “I’m getting photos from my friends in Berlin and other parts of Germany.”

“And we’re not like Scandinavians,” Kovač says. “We don’t have good genre fiction.” Nevertheless, Kovač mentions that he’s been surprised to find that several Slovenian writers are self-publishing fantasy romance in America–hardly a mainstay of the national oeuvre–through Amazon.

Highlights Coming Together

At the 2022 Frankfurter Buchmesse press conference for the Slovenian program. Image: Guest of Honor Slovenia

With some refinements to come, Kovač points to several highlights in the coming guest of honor program:

  • The rock group Laibach and the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra performance at the Jahrunderthalle under the direction of Navid Gohari with the Tehran Choir Human Voice ensemble of a setting of Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 Alamut, October 19, 8 p.m.
  • A Ljubljana Reading Manifesto is to be presented at the Slovenian Pavilion on October 18 at 10 a.m., stressing the fact that “the reading of complex, linear texts remains our most powerful tool for analytic and critical thinking.” An associated event, then is set that evening, October 18, at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto at the German National Library with Durs Grünbein, Matthias Göritz, and Aleš Šteger.
  • AI and Writing” features the linguist and professor emerita at the American University Naomi Baron with Kovač and the Norwegian author and screenwriter Maja Lunde at 4 p.m. on October 20. Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that Baron was a panelist in our special session, “Gender and Generations: Reading Now and When?” at the 33rd International Publishers Congress in Jakarta with the International Publishers Association (IPA). That program was created by the International Publishers Association.
  • And of particular interest, on October 20 at 3 p.m., Frankfurter Buchmesse president and CEO Juergen Boos will join UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin in a session about the importance of reading, an event geared to getting the message out to boys and men that reading is a crucial part of a good life.

When it comes to the Guest of Honor Slovenia program at Frankfurt as seen through the prism of rights trading, Miha Kovač makes it clear that a big part of the mission is the small size of his country: “We want to talk about the importance of publishing the smaller markets. We want to put our authors into a position in which they will have to communicate with German and [other] international authors. Because then this will position them in the global book landscape. And with this, we want to teach our authors and publishers how to communicate with the global publishing arena and how to produce books that are salable abroad.”

Anything else? Once more, that timing is there, he’s ready with the answer: “We want to help more publishers to engage in rights sales.”

Miha Kovač smiles into the late afternoon sunlight streaming into his study window in Ljubljana: “It’s a very simple approach.”

A programming note: In partnership with Guest of Honor Slovenia, our Publishing Perspectives Forum will present “Does Size Really Matter? Audio and Small Markets” at 3 p.m. on Frankfurt Thursday, October 19, with:

More on the Forum and its programming is here, with speakers being added as we confirm them and programming descriptions being developed as they’re ready.

Additionally, Publishing Perspectives will moderate “Data and Reading and Publishing Research,” a panel on the Srečko Kosovel Stage of the Slovenian Pavilion at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, October 18, with:

  • Miha Kovač, University of Ljubljana
  • Owena Reinke of Mainz University
  • Christoph Bläsi of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

More from Publishing Perspectives on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, more on Slovenia is here, more on the world’s international trade shows and book fairs is here, and more on guest of honor programs is here

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.