Penman No. 224: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (2)

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Penman for Monday, November 7, 2016

 

GOING TO the Frankfurt Book Fair was a great opportunity to renew old friendships and make new ones within both the global and Philippine publishing community. While we authors count publishers among our closest and most valuable friends, I realized in Frankfurt that we really don’t talk about their side of the business that much, as engrossed as we often are by our own fabulations.

I was particularly happy to finally meet Renuka Chatterjee, who had been India’s premier literary agent when she worked for the big Osian’s cultural conglomerate in New Delhi. As my first literary agent, Renuka had been instrumental in getting my second novel, Soledad’s Sister, translated and published in Italy; but more than that, she guided me through my first textual revisions, through which I began to learn how international publishing worked. When Osian’s shut down its literary operation, I passed on to another very capable agent in New York, and Renuka eventually joined another leading publishing house in India, Speaking Tiger. We had corresponded by email over the years, but Frankfurt gave us an excuse and a venue for a long-overdue face-to-face.

Another acquaintance lost and found was the dynamic and groundbreaking Malaysian publisher Amir Muhammad, whom I had first met at a conference in Penang in 1992; Amir gifted me with a new trilogy of Southeast Asian stories he had just published, featuring the works of some of our best young Filipino authors. (Those books—like many others I’ve gathered on my travels—are now lodged at the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room in UP, where we keep a repository of contemporary Southeast Asian literature.) Indeed, and not surprisingly, the Malaysians became the Philippine delegation’s best buddies at the fair; we frequented their booth to partake of the nasi lemak and to trade notes on the writing life. The Indonesians were equally hospitable, and our troop of visitors enjoyed a chat and the inevitable selfie with their star, the novelist Eka Kurniawan, whose Man Tiger made the 2016 Man Booker International Prize long list.

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Neither were the long hours at our own booth wasted, as a steady stream of visitors curious about our books and our culture came by to browse, to converse, and to do business. Business, after all, was what most people went to the book fair for, and while some of us minded the store, our delegates were often out meeting with their counterparts from the US, the UK, Europe, and the rest of Asia. (I had a very productive conversation with a gentleman from Montenegro who runs a kind of global blog of blogs—expect “Penman” to appear there soon, but only after it’s published here, of course.)

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It was the Ateneo University Press’ new boss Karina Bolasco’s third straight year at the fair, which she had previously attended representing Anvil Publishing. University presses don’t generally look at their books as profit-makers, reducing the financial pressure somewhat, but Karina still had a full schedule of meetings with academic publishers, especially longtime Philippine partners such as the University of Wisconsin Press. “Our job is to negotiate for reprint rights,” Karina told me. “We try to find material already published abroad that will be interesting to Filipino readers, and we also offer other presses the rights to reprint Filipino works with a global appeal.”

One of the most visited displays in the Philippine booth this year was that of Mandaluyong-based OMF Literature, Inc., which has published religious and inspirational books since 1957. OMF CEO Alexander Tan told me that their market was big and growing—extending even to OFWs in the Middle East—and that it had developed its own local stars such as pastor Ronald Molmisa, who draws huge crowds to his lectures on love and relationships. “I realized that by breaking the rules and letting people like Ronald use Taglish in their books, we could reach more readers,” Alex said.

On the other hand, literary agents like Andrea Pasion-Flores, who now works with the Singapore-based Jacaranda agency, assume the task of representing Filipino authors abroad and finding publishers to buy their works (and who then assign editors to work closely with the authors on revising their text for publication). Andrea—an accomplished author in her own right who also happens to be a lawyer and the former executive director of the National Book Development Board—is the first and, so far, the only literary agent working actively in the Philippines. Jacaranda has already sold the rights for such distinguished Filipino writers as the late Nick Joaquin, Charlson Ong, Isagani Cruz, and Ichi Batacan (whose Smaller and Smaller Circles will be a movie soon).

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Andrea and her Jacaranda colleagues Jayapriya Vasudevan and Helen Mangham spent long working days in Frankfurt at the exclusive Literary Agents section upstairs, which only registered agents (who paid a hefty price for table space) and publishers could theoretically access. But Andrea secured a pass for me so I could observe the frenetic 30-minute “speed-dating” sessions that took place in hundreds of cubicles. “You’re probably the only author in this room,” Andrea told me. When I asked her what international publishers were looking for from Filipino authors, her response was quick and to the point: “The big novel, more genre fiction, and more high-quality literary fiction—and less ego, please, as Filipino authors generally aren’t used to revising their work!”

Back downstairs the next day, my companions at the Philippine booth were surprised to see me in animated conversation in Filipino with a Caucasian lady, whom I was happy to introduce to everyone. Our visitor was Annette Hug, a novelist and translator who had come from her home in Zurich to meet with me and with her publisher at the book fair. Annette—who took her MA in Women’s Studies in UP and regularly practices her Filipino with an OFW friend—had just translated a piece I had published last month in the Philippine edition of Esquire magazine, a piece on extrajudicial killings that had somehow gone viral; Annette’s translation had come out that same day in a Swiss newspaper and she brought me my copies, fresh off the press. But apart from that sad topic, Annette had also just published a novel in German, Wilhelm Tell in Manila, based on Jose Rizal’s work on that Swiss hero’s life, and the UP Press will now explore the possibility of publishing a translation of her novel in the Philippines.

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Another visitor was children’s book author and Palanca Hall of Famer Eugene Evasco, who just happened to be in Munich on a three-month research fellowship, so he took the three-hour train ride to Frankfurt to visit the fair and to take in the mind-blowing displays at the children’s literature section.

Of such providential encounters, magnified into the thousands, was the Frankfurt Book Fair made, and while I was there less on business than as a roving cultural ambassador of sorts, I was glad and privileged to tick another item off my bucket list. I’ve run out of space to talk about an excursion some of us took to trace the footsteps of that quintessential Filipino writer, Jose Rizal, in nearby Heidelberg, so I’ll save that for another column soon.

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Penman No. 223: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (1)

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Penman for Monday, October 31, 2016

 

I’VE BEEN to mammoth meetings before—the Modern Languages Association in Chicago, MacWorld in San Francisco, Comic-con in San Diego, for instance—but nothing comes close to the Frankfurt Book Fair in size and scope. Covering over ten hectares of exhibition space spread out over several buildings and many floors, it’s certainly the world’s biggest and best-known book fair, gathering participants from nearly 200 countries.

Unlike author-focused literary festivals, the vast majority of those participants are publishers, booksellers, editors, literary agents, and printing industry representatives, all looking to make a pitch and a sale of their wares across the globe. That globe may have been made much smaller by the Internet, but nothing still beats a face-to-face transaction with one’s possible partners, and that’s where a book fair like Frankfurt’s comes in, as a week-long physical marketplace where the world’s publishers, from the biggest to the smallest ones, all go.

Inevitably a few writers and artists stray into the mix (we spotted David Hockney through a crack in the wall being interviewed at the Taschen booth by German TV), and this year I was one of those lucky few, with some help from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the University of the Philippines. Spearheaded by the National Book Development Board and invaluably assisted by the prime advocate of culture and the arts in the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda, the Philippines expanded and upgraded its representation at FBF 2016, with a much larger booth and an impressive array of books from all our major commercial and academic publishers. The NCCA also sponsored one of our top graphic artists, Manix Abrera, and it didn’t hurt that National Artist Virgilio Almario came along in his private capacity to accompany his wife Lyn and daughters Asa and Ani who were representing Adarna Books and the Book Developers Association of the Philippines.

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While Filipinos have attended the FBF in dribbles for some time now, it was only this year that we went all out, helped incalculably by our bigger booth. Last year, publishers had to chip in P100,000 each to rent a tiny plot of real estate at the fair, which starts at 400 euros per square meter. Sen. Legarda’s timely intervention meant that publishers could put their rental money into bringing more representatives and more books, and our 2016 delegation hit a historic high at over 40 members.

Though not yet quite the pavilion that countries like China and Singapore could afford, our corner booth was colorful and visually attractive—a plus in a fair with thousands of such offerings, all competing for the passing viewer’s eye. Through the Ateneo University Press (now headed by Karina Bolasco, formerly of Anvil Publishing), the Philippines also had another albeit smaller booth in another hall as part of the FBF’s invitational program, an affirmative-action project that brings in and sponsors selected publishers from developing countries. Predictably, China’s exhibit occupied a whole city block (for the price of which they could have gotten a better English editor for their signs, which proclaimed “Chinese Publication”).

On the other end of publishing pomp and circumstance, the FBF annually invites and celebrates a Guest of Honor, and this year it was the Netherlands and Flanders, which decked out an enormous hall as a haunting landscape reminiscent of the Dutch flatlands. The Guest of Honor status focuses attention not only on that country’s literature but its entire culture and society, providing an opportunity to put one’s best foot forward (Dutch royalty attended the opening ceremonies, lending a touch of glamor to the event—and ratcheting up security for everyone). The Guest of Honor also gets to choose a theme for its exhibit, which this year was “This Is What We Share” (last year, New Zealand—on the other side of the world, for Europeans—whimsically chose “While You Were Sleeping”). My fancy tickled, I asked what the Philippines needed to be named Guest of Honor—one can both apply or be invited—and received an unequivocal answer: “Millions of dollars.” I shut up.

Its cultural import aside, the book fair means big business for Frankfurt, which, in partnership with the private sector, leases out the fair grounds to such clients as the publishers’ association which directly runs the book fair; at other times the venue hosts other big events such as automotive fairs and a forthcoming Justin Bieber concert. Last year the FBF brought in 250,000 participants, a figure the organizers expect to rise to 280,000 in 2016.

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This year’s edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair is officially the 68th, but it traces its lineage much farther back to medieval times, when friars traded pages of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. There’s still a special section of the FBF devoted to the antiquarian trade, to which I gravitated naturally, being interested in all things ancient. Other than this parchment-heavy and leather-bound corner, the FBF dwells and thrives on nothing but new, newer, and newest—new books, new ideas, new authors, new media, new technologies, new markets, new connections, new networks.

Exhibits are grouped by geographic region, by language, and by theme, so one has to roam far and wide to get the full scale of things and to zero in on specific interests. Much of the business at Frankfurt, however, is pre-planned; with table space at a premium, publishers and agents would have emailed each other months or weeks in advance to set up meetings for specific dates and times in Frankfurt.

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The publishers of so-called “trade books”—novels, cookbooks, children’s books, etc. aimed at the general public—showcase their works to attract attention from international publishers and booksellers who may want to translate them into another language, or to sell the books on consignment in other countries. Academic publishers—this year we were represented by the UP Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, and UST Press—negotiate among each other for reprint rights, which can make costly works more easily available to local readers.

Led by NBDB Chair Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, the Philippines launched its exhibit with a reception at its booth on the fair’s formal opening on October 19, a well-attended event graced by Ambassador Melita Sta. Maria-Thomeczek (who was happy to recall that she had once been an employee in Rio Almario’s Adarna Books and had been a student of Rio’s wife Lyn at Maryknoll) and by First Secretary and Consul Cathy Rose Torres, who herself happens to be a prizewinning fictionist. The reception was catered by Maite Hontiveros, who laid out a scrumptious spread that featured lumpia, spoonfuls of adobo on rice, mango juice, and Philippine chocolate, which were clearly a hit among our foreign guests.

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Filipino books, of course, remained on top of the menu, and for the next week, we took turns at the booth to entertain visitors and book buyers from other countries, while occasionally slipping out to survey the vast array of exhibits and inevitably to marvel at the scope, vitality, and quality of global publishing in the 21st century. I came away even more convinced that culture is a global battleground, and that books are weapons—of mass instruction, if you will.

Next week, I’ll share the highlights of my conversations with key people at the book fair, and report on retracing Rizal’s footsteps in Heidelberg.

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