France is this year’s Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Buchmesse. However, the recognition is not only for France, but also the French language including Francophone writers and publishers. This is a good sign, but also a pragmatic decision, explains Pierre Myszkowski of the Bureau international de l’édition française (BIEF).
In 1989, the last time that France was guest of honour in Frankfurt, Francophone literature played a relatively minor role. How did this change of heart emerge now?
Initially, France was the exclusive guest again which some publishers in Paris found unnecessary. They held the view that Germany and France have such close ties in the publishing sector that it was possible to economize on the costly appearance as guest of honour. What many people don’t realize is that the guest organizes its own platform at the fair and must fund this. Therefore, the idea of including Francophone countries emerged, and this was also motivated by the search for new funding partners. I cannot say whose idea this was exactly. It’s certain that the organizers of the presentation for the guest country have quickly adapted to each other and came up with the suitable slogan for this, “Francfort en français” is now the official headline.
But France and Germany have shown long-standing interest for writers from Francophone countries, also from the former French colonies.
Yes. In 1980, the Frankfurt Book Fair, for example, was co-founder of the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Literatur aus Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika. The interest in writers has endured for 30 years. But the interest in publishers particularly from African countries south of the Sahara is relatively recent. Most foreign publishers don’t know them at all.
So your role is specially to showcase these Francophone publishers at the Book Fair?
Correct. There is a clear allocation of responsibility among the different organizations. The Institut Français is responsible for invitations to writers and was tasked with organizing the guest country pavilion. After that, the same as every year, there are the stands of the French publishers in the hall with the international publishers where licensing contracts are agreed. As usual, Francophone publishers are also represented here from the Maghreb countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria that each have an individual stand. The BIEF was asked for the first time to organize the platforms for African countries south of the Sahara. This is to take the form of a communal stand that is to be situated close to the French and Maghreb stands, so that a Francophone section is also created in this hall that is independent of the guest country pavilion. We have already been interested for a long time in promoting African publishers from Cameroon or Senegal, to mention only a few examples.
How many publishers do you want to invite to Frankfurt?
20 to 25 from 15 African countries south of the Sahara and Haiti. That is not very much; it’s still early days, also because often the publishing sector in these countries is not so far advanced. For instance, there are possibly 15 recognized publishing houses for the entire Ivory Coast. Yet, we’d still like them to become active on the international scene. Therefore, we want to introduce them to publishers from all over the world at the Frankfurt Book Fair, so they can also aspire to collaborative work beyond France.
Is that because cooperative work between French and Francophone publishers is difficult?
French publishers don’t take the trouble to discover writers published in Africa. They mainly want to sell their own books there. In French publishing groups, the export department takes care of this. Because this is separate from the licence department, the African publishers have no contact at all with the French publishers and licence managers and therefore have little opportunity to sell their authors’ rights. In addition, France sells few licence contracts to these countries, but already finished books that were produced for the French market and at reasonable prices. For example, even if Gallimard sells a book that costs 15 euros in France for 10 euros in Senegal, this is unaffordable for the local population. Until now, there are only a few French publishers that tried to get involved in establishing an independently functioning book market in these countries.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright