By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Tough Issues Head for Frankfurt PavilionIn some major international book-publishing markets, a lament from Germany may sound like Yogi Berra’s line, “déjà vu all over again.”
At issue is a dwindling number of news-outlet book presentations. That means newspapers’ book pages, for example; radio shows focused on books and reading; and television programs that offer visibility and speaking slots to authors.
The problem? The Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, is putting it with admirable clarity:
- “On the radio, more and more literary programs are disappearing from the linear program.
- “Falling circulation and advertising revenues are causing book pages in newspapers and magazines to shrink.
- “The book industry is intensively concerned with the changes in the media landscape.”
Planned changes at the Munich-based public-service radio and television broadcaster called Bayerischer Rundfunk have brought these issues to a head. BR, as it’s referred to, plans to cut 10 hours weekly of cultural programming.
Included in the anticipated cuts are programs including KulturWelt (Cultural World); a book program called Diwan; and RadioTexte, which hosts authors in discussion. These are examples of programming that the signers of a petition say are the kind of radio programming that “encourages people to think and discuss social issues in politically tense times.”
The petition is interesting to read. In it, the appeal to the management of the Bayerischer Rundfunk is quite critical of what it terms “snack culture” and the petition’s signers demand “competent, independent cultural programs.”
They list their demands this way–including, you’ll note, a pointed inquiry about a broadcaster’s constitutionally ordained responsibilities:
- “Diversity instead of simplicity and the constitutionally enshrined federal principle also in national cultural broadcasts
- “More cultural formats in the digital transformation for fee-paying, culture-interested listeners
- “Financing that fulfills the program’s mission
- “Timely, comprehensive inclusion of (cultural) broadcasting councils in BR/ARD plans and transparency”
ARD, you may remember, is a consortium of public broadcasters, and BR, the Bayerischer Rundfunk is part of ARD.
The tone of the petitioners’ demands is strident, and political. They write, “Politicians like Bavaria’s minister for science and art, Alliance 90/The Greens, the SPD are warning, organizations like ver.di and the German PEN Center are protesting. BR media partners express concern. The BR reform has long been discussed nationwide.”
These petitioners also make it clear that they don’t trust or appreciate the commentary of the Bayerischer Rundfunk. They write, “The BR leadership speaks of ‘one-sided reporting’ and ‘false information’ without specifically refuting this information … Smokescreens such as ‘program strategy,’ ‘digital transformation,’ and ‘future security’ obscure the planned clear-cutting of culture.”
All this has prompted the leadership at the Börsenverein to offer debate on the matter at Frankfurter Buchmesse–an example of what Frankfurt president and CEO Juergen Boos is saying this year makes Frankfurt a “democracy fair.”
Taking ‘Pressure on Publishers’ to Frankfurt Pavilion
“On the occasion of the planned changes at Bayerischer Rundfunk,” we read, “the Börsenverein points out the importance of literary formats for the visibility of books, and offers a stage for the discussion at the Frankfurt Book Fair.”
Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, head of the Börsenverein, writes, “Books and conversations about them are important building blocks of our debate culture. One of the central tasks of public broadcasting is to provide space for debate. Books initiate such debates.
“So they also need space—contemporary, also on new channels, but in recognizable formats in which people can perceive them. Those responsible in media companies should keep this in mind during upcoming transformations.”
Members of the Börsenverein have signed the petition and are organizing a discussion at Frankfurt:
What Does the Future of Literary Reporting Look Like?
3 p.m., October 18, Frankfurt Pavilion, with:
- Ellen Trapp, head of cultural programs, Bayerischer Rundfunk
- Kerstin Gleba, publishing director, Kiepenheuer & Witsch publishing house
- Frank Menden, a Hamburg bookseller and blogger
- Moderator Miriam Zeh, Deutschlander Kultur
“One of the central tasks of public broadcasting is to provide space for debate. Books initiate such debates.”Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, Börsenverein
And while many trade visitors and exhibitors, of course, will either be booked already or unable to follow this German-language event, the Börsenverein’s people may feel good energy coming their way from many markets in the world publishing industry in which governmental subsidy and cultural services are anemic at best, gradually being reduced, and in some cases non-existent.
In some markets, for example, a commercial economy may never have nourished its society’s cultural programs in a dependable or adequate way. And even in those spots, the kind of media programming these petitioners are trying to preserve has long been fading toward that “snack culture” these petitioners are decrying.
Something that once was as regularly published and read as a book review in a mainstream news medium has undergone many changes in parts of the world.
Writing in The Nation in the summer of 2022, Frank Guan described research by Phillipa K. Chong on “a flagging field of cultural commentary that’s undergoing fundamental shifts.” In that case, the very authority of a critic to form and promulgate her or his opinion is being questioned in an era when disagreement and strong opinion are frequently challenged. It might seem that consumer reviews—which have little to nothing to do with professional, informed criticism—have steamrolled genuine cultural debate into something pancake-flat: one to five stars and a badly misspelled rant by an amateur.
And in many cultures, a kind of wide-eyed, unnerved hesitancy appears to be affecting some in the arts—even as political pressures surround publishers and their authors with demands for demonstrations of allegiance to one concept or another.
In Fiction on Trial, an article from early last month at The Atlantic, Jordon Kisner writes, “Are novelists effective or reliable enough to be tasked with representing the political and social realities around them? Zadie Smith seems unsure.”
At issue, of course, is Smith’s The Fraud (Penguin Random House / Hamish Hamilton), released on September 5 in the States and September 7 in the United Kingdom.
Much of this has to do with a kind of authority that the several worlds of arts and letters seem less able to confirm in themselves today. Maybe more importantly, they seem increasingly unable to persuade others that they still command respect and attention.
Those interested in some of the more challenging elements of all this may want to look into another event at Frankfurt—one set on October 19, the day after the German discussion, at the same time in the same place: 3 p.m. at Frankfurt Pavilion. In this case, the conversation will be conducted in English.
The International Publishers Association (IPA) will stage:
“Pressure on Publishers: Challenging Norms and Navigating Controversy”
3 p.m. October 19, Frankfurt Pavilion, Agora
- Michiel Kolman, chair, IPA Inclusive Publishing and Literacy committee
- Åse Ryvarden, Aschehoug, Norway
- Sherif Bakr, Al Arabi, Egypt
- Trasvin Jittidecharak, Silkworm Books, Thailand
- Moderation: Publishing Perspectives
Questions of standing and response are mounting on all sides of cultural endeavor–not just from the far-right, but at times from the political left, as well. And one of the effects of this is a potential (and at times all too real) diminishment of what once was broadly agreed as a plane of stable authority for the world of professional published books.
There are professionals today wondering aloud whether book publishing has waited too long to assert itself and learn to safeguard its mission in an entertainment-glutted age. These and other issues will be tackled on Frankfurt Thursday in the IPA’s 3 p.m. program at Frankfurt Pavilion.
Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.