Frankfurt Book Fair
From guest of honour to literary star

The international book fair in Frankfurt
The international book fair in Frankfurt | Photo (detail): © Frankfurter Buchmesse

Every year, whichever country is guest of honour at Frankfurt Book Fair attracts a great deal of attention – though lasting impact will only be achieved if the country in question takes a number of rules to heart.

There is one sure sign each year that Frankfurt is once again playing host to the international book fair: the big tables set up in bookstores covered with dozens of freshly translated novels by largely unknown authors from that year’s guest of honour. The book fair’s special focus on a particular nation certainly appears to drum up plenty of business, but what remains of the hype once the fair comes to an end again five days later? Do the guest of honour and its literary scene profit long-term?

When a country is nominated to be guest of honour at Frankfurt Book Fair, the first thing that happens is that the wheels of translation begin to turn. On average, funding is provided for the translation of 40 to 50 new works. Nicole Witt, owner of the Mertin agency in Frankfurt – which specializes amongst other things in Portuguese and Brazilian literature – points out that this can be hugely important for certain languages in the world of literature: “Around two thirds of all translations in the domain of fiction are from English, followed by French, Italian and Spanish. Portuguese is pretty much at the bottom of the list simply because very few translators offer this language.” When Portugal and Brazil were named guests of honour at Frankfurt Book Fair, in 1997 and 2013 respectively, this gave a massive boost to the literature of both countries. “Brazil in particular profited greatly. In the decade prior to the book fair, almost no works by Brazilian authors apart from Coelho were translated.” Between 2011 and 2013, nearly twice as many books were in fact translated from Portuguese into German than in the 20 years before.

Translations work

The national governments of the countries in question are responsible for establishing bodies that provide funding for translation. These play a pivotal role in the merry-go-round that is the international book market, local publishing houses applying to them if they are interested in having specific authors translated. Brazil, for instance, made 8,000 US dollars available for each translation project. As Nicole Witt explains, it is important for funding to be continued even after the book fair, referring to the example of Argentina, which was guest of honour in 2010: even today, 2,300 US dollars are provided per project. As such, translation is one of the factors that determines whether a country’s guest of honour appearance at the book fair will have lasting impact. This is something Simone Bühler also knows only too well – she is project leader of the “Frankfurt Book Fair guest of honour programmes”. “Although the guests of honour set up organizational teams, they are often disbanded again once the book fair is finished. Obviously this is not the way to guarantee sustainability.” Generally speaking, however, it only becomes clear after two or three years whether the guest of honour’s projects were successful.

Thomas Böhm is well aware why this is the case. He was programme director for Iceland when the country was guest of honour in 2011. “As a rule, all guest of honour countries make one mistake”, explains Thomas Böhm. “Because the money comes out of the national budget, the way it is deployed always has a political aspect – in most cases it is all about representation.” And less about the literature itself. According to Böhm, the first problem is that the guests of honour always arrive with their own concept without having studied the peculiarities of the German market. There is often a lack of understanding, he says, about the fact that the central focus “must be on good stories, good authors and good books. In this regard most of the organizers appear literally incapable of accepting any advice. Yet a foreign country’s literary culture has to be launched in the same way that a new brand would be.” And this is something that requires years of patient cultivation. That is why funding translation alone is not enough, in Thomas Böhm’s view. He believes that there is frequently an absence of professional PR, marketing and advertising, something that Iceland handled rather more astutely back in 2011: from the outset, a binational organizational team was specially set up to give proper consideration to the German market. That said, Iceland benefited from the fact that its crime novels had already been popular in Germany long before the book fair, so readers started out with a positive attitude towards the country’s literature.

The Netherlands as a role model

Experts on the scene still regard the Dutch as the shining example of how to get it right, believes Holger Ehling. He spent many years at Frankfurt Book Fair, initially as its press spokesperson and then as head of corporate communication. For their guest of honour project in 1993, the Dutch established a dedicated office in Amsterdam, the “Letterenfonds”. This served – and indeed continues to serve today – as a central and largely government-independent port of call that deals quickly, directly, non-bureaucratically and pragmatically with all enquiries from abroad. “This is where the high profile enjoyed by Dutch literature, and indeed the popularity of a writer like Cees Noteboom, began”, asserts Holger Ehling.

Although things for the guests of honour do not always turn out quite so well as they did for the Dutch, Holger Ehling believes that one organization is certain to profit whatever happens. “And that is Frankfurt Book Fair itself. The guest of honour is its most important PR instrument by far, judging by the column inches in newspapers, airtime on the radio and TV and events that are devoted to it.” Every time a new guest of honour is announced, the whole cycle of planting seeds for its appearance at the fair begins anew. No-one knows for sure whether the plan will prove successful, but the opportunities certainly abound.