Behind the Slovenian Guest of Honor Success: Katja Stergar

In News by Porter Anderson

Both committed and funny, Slovenia’s guest of honor director Katja Stergar says she takes pride in ‘the fact that our families haven’t evicted us.’

Slovenian Book Agency (JAK) director Katja Stergar, right, receives the Frankfurt guest of honor codex from Spain’s María José Gálvez at the handover ceremony concluding the 2022 Frankfurt Book Fair. Image: FBM, Marc Jacquemin

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

‘Be Amazed at the Way We Think’
When you walk into the spacious Guest of Honor Slovenia pavilion in the Forum building at Frankfurter Buchmesse, Katja Stergar may not be the first team member you see there. That’s because she, along with the program’s curator Miha Kovač, is heading up the guest of honor project and thus has about as many details to handle as there are honeybees in Slovenia. (Not for nothing the guest of honor’s “Honeycomb of Words” phrase.)

Stergar is the director of the Slovenian Book Agency (JAK), but she’s clear that the Slovenian program is not only about books and literature but also about “the role of the Slovenian mountains and the Slovenians’ love of nature.”

So when Publishing Perspectives asks Stergar for some last thoughts ahead of the opening of Frankfurt Book Fair, she says, “It would be ‘Let’s read.'”

“Books broaden our horizons, encourage empathy, enhance brain activity, improve concentration, and at the same time stir the imagination, comfort, and cheer.

“There can never be too many books, especially good ones, even if we’re unable to read all of them. We want to entice you to listen to the sounds of Slovene stories, be amazed at the way we think, enjoy the images created by Slovene illustrators, so you’ll be able to leave the fair with at least a metaphorical Slovene bookshelf.”

With so many moving parts, producing a guest of honor program at Frankfurt is a many-layered challenge.

Slovenia’s book market sees 6,000 books published annually by 1,400 publishers at an average price of €21 each (US$22). The country’s libraries see as many as 23 million check-outs of books annually, and there are some 150 bookstores for this population of some 2.1 million.

Far beyond the events of the week at Messe Frankfurt, a guest of honor program involves a full year of events and activities introducing a nation’s literature and culture to Germany’s readers and thinkers. If Stergar—whose program has run smoothly and tirelessly, as seen by many on the Frankfurt team—were to advise another incoming guest of honor team, we ask, what might she say?

“First of all, thank you,” she says. “The most important thing is to have a good team. It shouldn’t be too big, but it has to be skillful.

“Curators should be regular attendees of the fair. Only by attending can they fully understand all the aspects of the fair. If possible, they should come from different parts of publishing world—as publishers or translators or organizers of events are focused on different events and places during the fair and that helps to broader the horizon of the program. Also, a knowledge of the German language helps a lot. It opens some more doors and speeds up the communication.

“Equally important,” Stergar says, “is to have a solid budget, and have it from the very beginning of the project. The pavilion is a huge cost, even when you try to be very modest,” she says, “and having somebody on your team who has dealt before with planning something similar and who also understands Frankfurt Book Fair would be a big help. I must admit, that this part was not simple at all.

“And the third thing,” Stergar says, “is that you never have enough time, so it’s never too early to start your preparations.”

‘I Would Run Away and Hide’

Knowing that these challenges are ringing true for so many producers of past guest of honor programs, we ask Stergar what she’s proudest of, and which part of the program makes her smile the most?

“I’m really proud that we haven’t had even one quarrel or dispute, even though we spent so much time together and even though there were many stressful situations.”Katja Stergar, Slovenian Book Agency

“That’s easy,” she says referring to the program’s two curators: “That Miha Kovač and Amalija Maček and I have kept our senses of humor up to the end—and that our families haven’t evicted us. I’m really proud that we haven’t had even one quarrel or dispute, even though we spent so much time together and even though there were many stressful situations.

“When thinking about the program,” she says, “I’m a specialist in children’s and YA literature, and one-third of our authors in our guest of honor are also authors of children’s and YA literature. That’s big. Besides that we’ll have two big illustration exhibitions. Everyone must come and visit both of them.”

There are in any guest of honor program at any book fair some “hidden gems,” as Stergar refers to them. She’d like to bring a couple of those to light. She mentions:

  • Friday, October 20, 10:45 a.m. at Guest of Honor Pavilion (Forum, Level 1): “My Neighbor on the Cloud: Slovenian Poetry of the 20th and 21st Centuries,” an event with readings, music, and poetry.
  • Friday, October 20, 8 p.m. in Romanfabrik: Hear Slovenian jazz group Ecliptic, “a crossover of dub, beat music, drum and bass and ambient research.”
  • Also at Guest of Honor Pavilion on Friday, this time at noon, Stergar points to “Under the Skin,” a presentation by Mojca Kumerdej and Miha Mazzini, “two amazing authors,” she says, “who you will enjoy listening to.”
  • And finally, she mentions an event in Guest of Honor Pavilion on Saturday at 3 p.m., with the Slovenian-Carinthian writer Florjan Lipuš, “an author who has still much to say and has written some of the most important Slovenian novels.”

Lastly, we ask Stergar if she had a chance to start all over on the Guest of Honor Slovenia project, what she might do.

“I would run away and hide,” she says, laughing.

“It’s the most exhausting project I’ve ever been part of. I’d insist on having at least three more very skillful people on the team for at least a year—and enough budget from the first day.”


A version of this story is in our 75th Frankfurt coverage from our Frankfurt Book Fair Magazine, which is available through the trade show in print.

The magazine has more interviews with fellows and grant-program recipients from international publishing markets, as well as previews of programming from our Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurt including our Executive Talks with Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Nihar Malaviya and Nanmeebooks’ Kim Chongsatitwana; highlights of key events at the 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse; and coverage of Frankfurt’s upcoming guest of honor programs (Italy, the Philippines, the Czech Republic) and this year’s Guest of Honor Slovenia.

There’s also news of literary agents and agencies; award-winning books from guest of honor markets; focus articles on artificial intelligence, sustainability; and a forthcoming effort to get more Korean literature into world markets; as well as 75th-anniversary “Frankfurt Moments.”

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. To learn more about this year’s Guest of Honor Slovenia program, see its dedicated site at SloveniaFrankfurt2023.com/en.

 

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.com, 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.