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Interview Marifé Boix García

“Being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair is an incentive to maintain or increase the promotion of the translation of Spanish books”.

Marifé Boix García is Vice-President for Southern Europe and Latin America Frankfurter Buchmesse GmbH. Among other activities, she manages the business and strategic development and is responsible for the Book Fair’s Fellowship Programme and Invitation Programme. For this Spaniard who is passionate about books and the sector, it is an exciting time that we are experiencing on this ‘Road to Frankfurt’, which will culminate in October this year. 

In Spain, the most visited book fairs are for sales, not for the publishing sector, and we look at the Frankfurt fair without knowing exactly how to describe it. How would you describe the fair?

In the case of Frankfurt, it is a mixed fair, which lasts five days: three days are dedicated to the professional public and the weekend to the general public. The size of the fair is enormous and this means that we distribute the exhibitors by region and in several cases by theme, creating, for example, large spaces dedicated to children’s books, education, gastronomy, tourism, etc. In these areas there are usually spaces where presentations are made or, in the case of gastronomy, culinary tastings.

At the last pre-pandemic fair we had approximately 7,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries, which illustrates the diversity and size of the event. There are usually about 10,000 media representatives and about 280,000 visitors.

The main focus of the fair is the sale of translation rights into other languages and the publication of books in other countries; this is mainly handled through the Literary Agents’ Centre, where the number of participating agencies continues to grow every year. In 2019, more than 700 literary agents attended. And it is obviously about keeping their networks active and continuing to make new contacts and discoveries.

It is also a fair where trends related to the publishing world are presented, be it topics such as artificial intelligence or audio, as well as other business models.

To what extent does what is agreed at the fair influence the publishing market?

At some point, I’m sure the vast majority of contracts were signed at Frankfurter Buchmesse. But we all know that now that we have our smartphones at hand, all kinds of communication are possible at any time and in any place, i.e. contracts can be signed at other times as well. But the meeting, the presentation of the new book or manuscript in front of so many different publishers or agents from different countries is hardly possible at any other fair. In fact, the feedback from the professionals who have participated in Frankfurt in the framework of the pandemic has been that they need the physical meeting and exchange to do business better.

What are the big highlights of the fair, the must-see events for the general public?

There is a Literary Gala in the congress centre with the participation of international writers such as Margaret Atwood or Ken Follet. For several years now, the Frankfurt Pavilion, which is only set up during the fair, has also been hosting international writers for the whole week. From Latin America, for example, established names such as Leonardo Padura, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Pilar Quintana or Maria José Ferrada have taken part. We have a political-literary forum – the Weltempfang – where writers such as Almudena Grandes, Héctor Abad Faciolince and Sergio Ramírez have spoken.

What has changed at the fair in the last five years in terms of what it offers visitors?

Specifically five years ago we created The ARTS+ space, an area designed to promote meetings between professionals from different cultural and creative industries. In this space, museums are presented with their digitised projects, round tables and meetings with film and television producers take place, etc. In 2021, the city of Valencia participated as World Design Capital.

There is a growing interest in cosplay on the part of visitors. During the fair there is usually a Cosplay championship and they come dressed as their favourite characters.

A very important topic, especially for German publishers, is that we have managed to make it possible to sell books during the weekend, which was previously not allowed by our publishers’ and booksellers’ association in order to protect local and regional bookshops.

It is also worth mentioning the development of the BOOKFEST which brings together countless activities in different institutions in and around the city, be they museums, restaurants, literary houses, bookshops, libraries, cafés, cinemas, theatres, etc. The last edition of the fair was held in the middle of the pandemic and we have avoided any kind of agglomeration in our space. That is why the activities aimed at the general public were almost entirely carried out within the BOOKFEST, where the institutions could control visitor access.

With the appearance of Covid, there has been a strong commitment to telematics, including digital exhibitors. What is this option like and what is your assessment of its use?

Frankfurter Buchmesse is the world’s largest industry trade fair, so the digital concept for 2020 was intended to offer all the visibility and business opportunities to professionals who would have participated in person. Hence the challenge to transfer as many business tools as possible to the virtual sphere to meet the needs of our customers. At the same time, we are very clear that we do not want to replace the physical fair, but we do want to offer a digital complement to solve the situation when we cannot offer a face-to-face activity.

We adapted a platform for the purchase and sale of rights, Frankfurt Rights, where exhibitors could upload their titles, and we connected it to the fair’s (digital) exhibitors’ directory so that books could also be made visible and work on rights in the absence of the literary agents’ centre. There were 4,165 buyers and sellers registered on the platform, as well as 31,100 titles during the fair. In total there are already some 400,000 titles.

We also launched the matchmaking tool, which was only working from the app, so that it could be used from the desktop at home or in the office. 2,388 professionals participated in this tool, there were 9,542 contact requests and 3,153 matches were registered.

The 70-hour professional programme was broadcast live and included lectures, networking meetings moderated by us, as well as meetings in the bar of the Frankfurter HOF, where registered participants meet in the evening for a drink and informal conversation. We all know that business is not only done in formal meetings.

Registration for the digital events was free of charge thanks to the support of the German government. This was surely a great incentive for professionals to enter who had never been able to afford it before. For example, among the top ten new digital exhibitors in 2020 who had never been to the fair before were publishers from Spain and two Latin American countries.

The big challenge in the digital activities has been to be able to rebuild and convey what we value in the physical events. Some things work well and others not so well. The more technical part of professional meetings, i.e. the negotiation between two or three people, also works digitally. But if we want to convey emotions, for example, things get more complicated. The human encounter cannot be replaced by a digital platform, unless there is already a common basis and technology is used as a method of communication.

The digitalisation of certain platforms and processes related to the fair was developed as a complement to a physical fair, not as a substitute: realising the physical fair is still the main objective.

How did the book industry’s great book fair come to be in a country whose language is not among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world?

There are several important factors here. Frankfurt’s tradition as a trade fair venue goes back a long way. It was first mentioned in 1150, then as the “Frankfurt Autumn Fair”. The trade was mainly in expensive consumer goods such as weapons, spices and textiles, but also in general consumer goods. The “Autumn Fair” and the “Spring Fair”, which was added in 1330, quickly became international and universally important.

The Frankfurter Buchmesse has a tradition of more than 500 years. A book fair already existed in Frankfurt in the early modern period, after Johannes Gutenberg revolutionised book printing in Mainz, just a few kilometres from the city, and printers made this fair the centre of the book trade, which replaced the manuscript trade. Until the end of the 17th century, Frankfurt remained the central city for book fairs in Europe.

In 1949, after the division of Germany, two booksellers from the city managed to revive the tradition of book fairs. From 18 to 23 September, 205 German exhibitors gathered in St. Paul’s Church (Paulskirche). The first event was attended by 14,000 visitors and a total of 10,000 titles were presented. The German focus was already lost at the next event in 1950, when the exhibitors also included publishers from other European countries and the USA. Today, 70 % of the exhibitors are from abroad.

Frankfurt, as Peter Weidhaas, the fair’s director from 1975 to 2000, pointed out, is internationally regarded as a role model. In 1976, it was he who invented the Guest of Honour project, which went to Latin America, a formula that has been followed by different fairs in the book sector and other industries.

It should also be noted that Germany has developed into one of the largest rights markets in the world. Approximately 50 % of its publishing output is translations.

As Guest of Honour, what will Spain’s role be at the Frankfurt Book Fair?  

Spain will be the focus of attention at the fair and this will be conveyed from the press conference on Tuesday morning, 18 October, through the opening ceremony on the same day at 17:00, where political representatives as well as writers will speak, and will culminate with the opening of the Spain Pavilion, a space of more than 2,000 square metres where an exhibition will be presented by the Guest of Honour. There will also be an area for activities with writers and other professionals.

From Wednesday, the fair will begin and the stands of the Spanish exhibitors can also be visited, who will be located in their usual pavilion close to other neighbouring countries such as France, Italy, and Portugal, as well as exhibitors from Latin America.          

The main work of the publishers and agents is the buying and selling of rights, which is the main focus of Frankfurt and also the main objective of being Guest of Honour at the fair. It is a work of several years with the expectation of internationalising the literature of the guest country into as many languages as possible. In order to achieve this aim, in addition to the existing ones, new grants have been established for the translation of Spanish works and several meetings have been held between Spanish and international publishers and agents. 

In addition, there will be many cultural activities in the city, from literary events, for example, at the Instituto Cervantes, as well as theatre, cinema and music activities to art and photography exhibitions in various museums.

Here we are talking about the days of the fair and, in the case of exhibitions, the months surrounding the event, but in reality Spain’s year already began at the end of the last edition when Canada -the previous guest- passed on the baton. 

In February there are already activities in the framework of the Berlinale, where in cooperation with the Frankfurter Buchmesse, meetings with film producers are being held. There will also be Spanish participation in the various literary and cultural festivals in Germany.

You once said that being a Guest of Honour was not so much a “project” as a “process”, could you explain this further?

Projects, according to the typical definition, have a beginning and an end, but in this case the main objective of the Guest of Honour is to increase the number of translations of Spanish books and obviously this should not have an end but the opposite. We can say that this project is an incentive to maintain or increase the promotion of translation, supporting writers to travel to fairs when their works are presented abroad or maintaining residencies for translators in cooperation with different countries, etc.

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