NZ a popular read at Frankfurt Book Fair

By Cathrin Schaer

Guest-of-honour status gives country big exposure among the hordes and in German media

New Zealand art and culture were highlighted at the Frankfurt Book Fair - as well as its authors. Photo / AP
New Zealand art and culture were highlighted at the Frankfurt Book Fair - as well as its authors. Photo / AP

"I knew it was going to be big," remarked author Eleanor Catton.

"But I have been amazed. Picture an international airport, hangars included: that's about the scale of the building, and every hall is filled with stalls and crowds. It's truly overwhelming."

Says children's book author Brian Falkner: "It's about the same size as a small New Zealand town. Possibly bigger."

For five days of the Frankfurt Book Fair, publishers, authors, literary agents and readers roamed what one German newspaper described as 23 football fields' worth of trade fair. They made appointments and some did million-dollar deals, or at least started negotiating them.

They've all bathed daily in the smell of fresh ink and no doubt anyone who didn't wear comfortable walking shoes has been tending to their blisters - if you wanted to meet the stars of publishing and literature, you had to walk fast to cover the 169,000 sq m site.

In the international publishers' wing, every hall offered a fresh set of worldly reading - there were publishers from everywhere, from Azerbaijan to Armenia to Mexico to China.

Of an estimated 7300 exhibitors from 100 countries, almost 40 per cent were German. The Vatican was there, showing off what they could print in red and gold, and just down the hall there was the Iranian stand, piled high with gold-lettered Korans and religious exhortations.

On display were calendars, newspapers, textbooks, travel guides, children's books, digital books, paperbacks and rare books worth anywhere from $4000 to $30,000 - basically, more printed material than you can shake a new iPad at.

Wandering down the hallways - for those with blisters, there were moving walkways just like at the airport - you heard dozens of accents and languages; by tomorrow, when the fair ends, about 300,000 visitors are expected to have come through.

Among these was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who presented his memoirs, Total Recall, as well as bestselling American author, Ken Follett with his new book, Winter of the World, translated into German.

Also noticeable: hundreds of juice bars, coffee shops, restaurants and eateries for all those exhausted from walking. The Book Fair even has its own miniature supermarkets and a souvenir shop.

New Zealand has been a major part of this major literary event. There are large black and white banners everywhere proclaiming New Zealand as this year's guest of honour. German newspapers have never written so much about the South Pacific without the motivation of some natural disaster, and the names of New Zealand authors are in every newspaper, on every interviewer's list and seen on each discussion panel.

In one special cafe at the Book Fair, you could even feast on New Zealand specialities such as the "Queen Street salad", hoki fillet and chocolate banana cake as well as New Zealand beer and wine.

The German media were mad for it. Newspaper coverage included everything from an in-depth examination of the place where Maori and Pakeha culture intersect in the highbrow Die Zeit paper - during one of around 70 interviews he did in Germany, author Lloyd Jones told them that the country truly came together on the rugby field - to pictures of pretty beaches, boats and the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle bemusedly staring at tattooed Maori buttocks in the not-quite-so-high-brow Bild newspaper.

The majority of German journalists were fascinated by either how far away New Zealand was or the mysterious exoticism of "the indigenous people of the Land of the Long White Cloud".

A lot was also written about the New Zealand Pavilion.

Standing in the pavilion this week, NZ Publishers' Association president Kevin Chapman was happy. He's been coming to the Frankfurt Book Fair for more than 20 years and is one of the prime movers of this initiative. And some years, he says, he's seen fewer than 30 people in the various guest-of-honour pavilions.

Lewis Holden, chief executive of the Ministry for Heritage and Culture, confirmed Chapman's suspicions: even on the first day, 4000 people came to see the pavilion, and there have been more every day since.

Before this weekend is over there will be more New Zealand to come: there's an exhibition rugby game between a team assembled by the New Zealand Ambassador and the German national team and there's also a Hobbit costume competition.

But what about the actual business of publishing? Because one definitely gets the feeling that, while New Zealand's wares are on proud display, the real wheeling and dealing is going on around a small business table somewhere way behind these scenes.

After all, as industry insiders point out, usually not a lot of authors come to Frankfurt - it's meant more for the publishers and agents. The only reason so many New Zealand writers are here this week is the guest-of-honour status.

"Twenty years ago, you might have had someone here come and say, "I just sold 20,000 books to so and so'," Chapman explains, "but now it's much more of a process. You present your products and you start a discussion. There are no longer a lot of deals actually done here. That happens later. And if it does happen here it's because you're concluding discussions you've had before [the book fair]. Having said that, though, this really is the key place for us. There's just no equivalent to Frankfurt."

How's your Frankfurt Book Fair been?

Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal:"Jessica Craig, my foreign rights agent, is hoping to sell foreign rights to my second novel, The Luminaries. I'm not seeing her until later so until then, fingers crossed! I was able to go and see Beethoven's birth house with Witi Ihimaera. Witi used Beethoven's Fidelio as the structural model for his novel The Parihaka Woman, so it was fun to experience the place with him.

"It's also been really interesting to have to answer questions about what it means to be a NZ writer, and what defines New Zealand literature.

"It's been really valuable to me to ask that question of myself, to try and answer it, and to hear what my colleagues here in Frankfurt have to say."

Lewis Holden, CEO, Ministry for Heritage and Culture: "I guess the goal of the Government is to see a real manifestation of what we always call New Zealand Inc. In my experience, it's not always fully realised but from the feedback I've heard, we have been noticed here - there's been a phenomenal amount of media coverage in Germany.

"And I would be amazed if that doesn't translate into more tourism and trade opportunities.

"Also, as a small ministry with a small staff, it's been a challenge and then so gratifying to see everybody helping out and mucking in."

Annabel Langbein, celebrity chef, television presenter and publisher of 19 cookbooks, which have sold almost two million copies around the world. She first came to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1995: "Frankfurt is all about relationships, about finding the right partners to work with. And what we've seen this year for the first time is a more open attitude towards different business models. That's exciting because the publishing world is changing so much - lots of multi-media, lots of different strands.

"I can't tell you what we're doing yet - but we have had some exciting meetings: we've been giving ideas and getting them.

"And what's been the hardest thing here? Staying up really late. You end up having dinners and meetings every night with the people you're working with. Your liver needs to be in shape for this kind of thing."

Emily Perkins, author of, among others, Novel About My Wife, which won the 2009 Montana Book Award and The Forrests, which has been translated into German: "I've been able to meet with my French publisher and my German publisher and it's really important to maintain those connections. And I did a reading last night. But what's been really lovely is being here with - and I probably shouldn't say this - what some people are jokingly calling 'Team New Zealand'."

"I also thought it would be more bleak and daunting and corporate somehow. There's a saying someone told me: take a writer to Frankfurt and break their heart. But it hasn't been like that at all. Of course, we're here consorting with New Zealanders. But even when you're connecting with other [non-New Zealand] publishers, it's all very human and positive."

Brian Falkner, children's author of, among others, The Tomorrow Code and a new series called Recon Team Angel: "Yesterday I was told that two of my books are going to be published in German and at least two more are being considered by German, French and Turkish publishers. It's been a fantastic opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes in publishing and NZ's presence is quite amazing.

"NZ is everywhere you turn and then you're standing in a queue and you hear people talking about 'Neuseeland'. I do think that if we hadn't been guest of honour we would have been submerged here."

The German view

"There's only a small publishing scene in New Zealand and hardly any famous authors.There is no tradition of written language and books are foreign to the Maori people; they have an oral tradition of storytelling."

Financial Times of Germany

"A little bit Maori, a little bit Middle-earth, a little bit mythical," wrote the Berliner Morgenpost of the New Zealand Pavilion.

The hall "feeds our impression that New Zealand is an island of secrets at the end of the world", enthused major national newspaper Die Welt.

"Magical and multi-dimensional," proclaimed metropolitan daily Frankfurter Rundschau.

A reporter from Allgemeine Zeitung thought the pavilion was too dark and worried about getting his feet wet in the shallow pools of black, reflective water.

- NZ Herald

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