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Leipzig – Frankfurt without the steroids

By March 28, 2012No Comments

Written by KEVIN CHAPMAN • 27 March 2012

It's possible that you don't even know the Leipzig Book Fair exists. If that's the case, you'd not be the only one, writes Kevin Chapman. But for New Zealand publishers and authors, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

This very old and very well attended fair for the German public does not get the coverage that its big cousin, Frankfurt, does. But the fact is that there is a vibrant book fair going on in this rather lovely city in the former East Germany. And it dates back centuries. But its main difference from its western relative is that it is a public fair, not focused on trade to trade as Frankfurt is.

We, the New Zealand Guest of Honour Frankfurt 2012 programme team, got interested when we heard from our Icelandic precursors how successful Leipzig 2011 had been in getting their programme working. So after Frankfurt last year we zipped into Leipzig for an 18-hour recce, to see what the opportunities were for us. And what we saw was a manageable Messe, smaller than Frankfurt but still a decent size, and an opportunity not only to engage with the German media, but to have a practice run for the big Frankfurt programme in October this year.

And that is what we did. We took to Leipzig 10 authors and six publishers plus some of the project team. The idea was to do a number of things: to introduce our authors to the German public, or if they were published in Germany, to enhance the public's knowledge of them; to give our publishers a chance to meet with more German publishers, as Leipzig is a good publisher working fair as well as a public fair; to engage with the German media wherever possible, as they are well represented at this fair; and to rehearse the process of curating an author programme in a German-language environment.

So, what did we find, and what did we experience?

First, Leipzig was an overwhelmingly positive experience for all us. The old city is beautiful. The fair was efficient and easy to navigate. We were helped by the fact that the Frankfurt Book Fair team had arranged for us to have space on the stand that they shared with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, and they were incredibly supportive. So our home base at the fair was easy and welcoming.

Second, our authors were really well received. Our whole approach to GoH has been to say that we need to showcase our entire writing community, regardless of genre. We have talented writers across the board, so we want to show that. We took 10 authors who demonstrated that. Literary, crime, children's, historical fiction, poetry, non-fiction – we attempted to show it all. Incredibly, an NZ author who wasn't at Leipzig, but will be part of our programme, turned up at number seven on the Spiegel bestsellers list the week we were there. And that is in paranormal romance. So it helped make our point.

We had arranged a variety of events over the four days of the fair. There were two stages available to us. One, quite small, was on our stand, and the other was on a larger international stage within our hall. Events were scheduled on both stands, starting with a press conference on the first morning. Our Ambassador came from Berlin to support us, and Juergen Boos, the Frankfurt Fair Director, opened it up for us. The focus author was Alan Duff, who authored Once Were Warriors, which is still a big seller in Germany. And because we like to always come singing and dancing, we had an NZ soprano come over, Aivale Cole, and she sang Maori ballads that had all of us fighting back tears. So then we had our author events, for which our expectations were modest given that it was a German public audience and the events were in English, albeit with simultaneous translation available.

Well, we were gobsmacked. The event would be put up on the stage screen in advance and people would turn up and sit down. And once our guys started talking more people would turn up. The German public. And often eschewing translation, happy to listen in English. Bloody great audiences. And right through the fair we expected little and got confounded by how wrong we were. It did your heart good. It really did.

In addition to this we brought in the NZ String Quartet, who were already in Europe on tour, and had a night with them and another London-based NZ soprano. This event was hosted by the NZ Embassy, and the programme included works on literary themes.

That alone would have made it worthwhile. But the publisher meetings were great. The media interaction was good. A lot of the German media going down to NZ as part of our "incoming media programme" was at Leipzig, and it proved to be useful as a briefing point. And we learnt so much about curating the author event programme that it has been invaluable for Frankfurt this year.

So, Leipzig as an experience? Special. Small and manageable. Beautiful city. A way to engage with the German public. Simply no negatives, only positives. If you get a chance, go to Leipzig. For the Book Fair. Or just to see to see the city. Definitely worth it.

Kevin Chapman is Managing Director and Publisher of Hachette New Zealand and President of the New Zealand Publishers Association 


Article courtesy of BookBrunch