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Modjaji Books

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Notes from a Frankfurt Book Fair first-timer

I was fortunate to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair as a participant in their Invitation Programme from the 7th to the 17th October. The person who did all the organisation for us was Corry von Mayenburg, who has been to the Cape Town Book Fair a few times. She and her team were incredibly well organised, accommodating, kind, and responsive.


1. Spending ten days with ‘my people’, other small and/or activist independent publishers, (quite a few of whom are also writers, even poets!) from all over the “South” or the developing world. It was incredible not having to do any small talk but to leap straight into intense discussion, joking, riffing, telling stories, teasing gently, playing games with language and meaning, as though we had known each other all our lives. There was lots of shop talk too: print runs, contracts, how to sell rights, book design, dealing with authors, leads for selling rights, publishing mistakes and how to fix them, who we get to do our covers, using up extra card in a print run to make post cards or bookmarks or invitations, distribution issues and how to solve them, industry gossip from mainstream connections, stories about our work.

The other publishers came from North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt; West Africa – Senegal and Togo; Central Africa – Uganda, Middle East – Syria and Lebanon. Central and South America – Venezuela, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Argentina and Peru. South Africa (me) and Zimbabwe. Asia: India, Iran, Bhutan, Cambodia and Singapore. Eastern Europe – Croatia and Romania. As I was an AFS foreign exchange student in 1980/81 this Frankfurt experience reminded me of AFS, the part of meeting people form other countries and forming friendships quickly and easily. It turned out that Oscar Castillo from Costa Rica had also been an AFS student though a few years before me.

Hermann Kesten Prize of German P.E.N. for Egyptian publisher Mohamed HashemThe publisher from Egypt, Mohamed Hashem, had been part of the Invitation Programme twice before is to receive the Herman Kesten Prize of the German P.E.N. – some of us attended the press conference where he and a publisher from Belarus were interviewed about their work. Hashem together with the famous writer Ibrahim Mansour, started Merit Publishing House. He and Merit have been honoured several times for their courageous work. And this year he lived through the Egyptian revolution, from Merit’s offices just off Tahrir Square. Read more about Mohamed Hashem here

2. Walid Soliman told about his first hand experience of living through the revolution in Tunisia and he gave us a background of what life in Tunisia has been like up to and post the revolution. Needless to say it has been a tough time as a publisher. The elections are happening as I write this, it remains to be seen what will happen, because even though they are rid of the old regime, it is not yet clear how the dust will settle.

3. Meeting two feminist press publishers (Susan Hawthorne from Spinifex – also a poet) and Urvashi Butalia from Zabaan Books in India and reconnecting with Hilda Twongyeirwe from Femrite in Uganda. I participated in a writers’ retreat in Kampala in 2008, which I wrote about here and here and in Home Away.

4. It was wonderful to see Bibi Bakare-Yusuf again, the driving force behind Cassava Republic Press from Nigeria. I met her a couple of years ago, just before the first Jozi Book Fair and then again at the Cape Town Book Fair. We have made plans to share ideas, strategies and find ways to collaborate.

5. The Weltempfang or Centre for Politics, Literature and Translation hosted a translation seminar in which a translator sat at a desk and did a live translation in front of a smallish relaxed audience. The book she was translating from English into German was The Fault of our Stars by John Green.

We also had various welcomes and farewells and events at the Weltempfang, a feast of talks and events, PEN related, social justice and the role of the writer and publisher in society, translation.

6. Speaking to publishers, agents and translators who were interested in Modjaji books, and finding I had polished up my “elevator pitch” in talking about Modjaji and about several authors and their books, in a way that made them sound sexy and saleable and fabulous. I realised that the pressure and intensity of Frankfurt ‘forced’ me to re-invent myself as someone much more confident, with the gift of the gab!

7. Learning about publishing issues from experienced German publishers and industry experts – including a book designer who is also the Director of the Stiftung Buchkunst (see below), a literary agent, rights specialists and a social media marketing campaign manager.

8. The exhibition of best designed books. I took pictures with my phone to remind me of some of the things I saw. This complemented the presentation we received from Uta Schneider, Executive Director of Stiftung Buchkunst (Book Art Foundation) based in Frankfurt and Leipzig. The books on exhibition were selected for typography, book-design, and book production.

Let’s have a book design award here, I think the folk at the Frankfurt Book Fair would be only too delighted to assist us in setting one up. I think it is a way of drawing attention to design, and promoting good design. We can think about our context and what kind of books we would like to reward. Well designed books don’t have to be expensive, they have to be thought about with imagination and creativity. We do already have very beautiful and imaginative books. It would be a way of drawing attention to books in a new way. Come on, let’s do this, South African Book Trade!

9. Lots of new publishing ideas, some of which might actually make some money; making new connections with people; things to follow up on, cool gifts for my daughter from the Gutenberg Museum which had a stand at the Fair.

10. Meeting people who were really interested in Modjaji’s books and were eager to meet and connect and find out if we might do business. (I also loved how people’s eyes would light up and say “Mandela?” when they heard I was from South Africa.)

11. Going all the way to Frankfurt to meet Libby Doyle who lives in Cape Town and having breakfast with Arthur Attwell at the hotel, and hearing more about his Paperight project.

1. Hall 8 on the first day of the Book Fair, it was like ADHD on steroids. And every book name or institution you have ever heard of in the English book world was there. I had an appointment with a publisher at the reception of HarperCollins. She got the date mixed up, so she didn’t turn up the first day. I felt like I would be moved along and wasn’t sure how long to wait so I didn’t seem desperate. A bit like a blind date in a new culture – what are the rules?

2. Making appointments, taking the risk of approaching a publisher, agent or scout, and then pitching a particular title

3. Realising again and forcefully what a tiny fish Modjaji Books is, and what a tiny pond South Africa is in the global context, and yet … it was also comforting, and a reminder to “think global, and act local”.

1. The Iceland exhibition – in which Iceland as the Guest of Honour to the Fair offered something special, quiet time, a space to reflect and calm down. I loved the video installation cube that you can stand inside or lie down inside of, and experience Iceland – made me think of the movie The Tree of Life, and of Viking and Nordic myths and legends, of Ygdrassil, and of Iceland as the place where the umbilical cord or navel of the planet is, that connects the deep fiery interior with the surface of the earth, ice and fire, the northern lights, and hot geysers gushing out exhaling.

Another aspect of the exhibition was the way the rest of the space was made up, like several living rooms or libraries, furnished with couches, tables, bookshelves, muted lighting and the walls were large posters of people reading, until you realised that the posters were alive, and you could see the people’s eyes blink and a hand turn a page. Now and then a new person would start reading in a language unfamiliar to me. I rediscovered from a new perspective, the quiet joy of reading, by being able to watch these quiet, peaceful people reading.

I loved the range and beauty of the books on the Iceland exhibition and the tables at which you could sit down and read them, paging through books of wild looking ponies, remote hillsides with little if any evidence of human existence. I could have spent all day, or many days there.

It seems apt that Iceland was the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.

2. I went twice to see the Twitter installation

13.10.2011, Installation at the Frankfurt Book Fair
KMS TEAM is the curator of an installation by Christopher P. Baker entitled “Murmur Study”, currently on display at the Frankfurt Book Fair in cooperation with Audi. The installation is an artistic exploration of the topic of networking. It consists of 132 thermal printers connected to a computer. A program written by the artist searches the social network Twitter for selected terms, such as “dialogue”, “idea” and “literature”, as well as emotional elements like emoticons. The corresponding tweets are then printed. This process creates a work of art that reflects what inspires and connects people around the world
Read more

3. Being outside in the fresh, sometimes chilly air after too many hours indoors, in air-conditioned halls. I loved the stands selling Bratwurst and Beer outside, where you could join others taking a moment to eat and relax. You could also get pancakes with Nutella filling, I know some writer friends who would have loved that.

4. Wolf Hingst – My family had a foreign exchange student, Wolf Hingst, from Germany, to stay in 1985. I was at UCT and doing my H Dip Ed, sharing a flat in Rondebosch. I’d lost touch with him and in fact hadn’t seen him since 1985. Well the week before I left for Frankfurt I got an email from Wolf. He found me on Facebook while on the train during his regular commute, and he wrote to me. I was able to say that I would be in Germany in a week’s time. Amazingly he came by train from Hanover to see me. We clicked immediately and had a wonderful intense conversation. I hope to stay connected to Wolf now. He was able to explain lots of fascinating bits of German culture for me, also because he knows what South Africa is like. I learnt about German media and ‘verreine’ – co-operatives or associations that are at the heart of German social, cultural and sporting life.

Frankfurt Book Fairies

5. I loved the Carnival atmosphere of the Frankfurt Book Fair on the two public days when the young people come dressed up as fictional characters, many from Manga, but not only. I think there might be something that we, the SA book trade could pick up on? Allow young people free into the Cape Town Book Fair if they dress up as fictional characters? Or even the Book Lounge or Jozi Book Fair?

1. The amazing generosity of the German government and Litprom in bringing 23 publishers to get a foot in the door of the biggest and best Book Fair in the world.
2. In Frankfurt, the mixture of very old and new buildings, the understated details in buildings.
3. Seeing South African wine in a small neighbourhood supermarket.
4. The trains, run on time and are clean and fast and fabulous. We stayed 18kms away from the Book Fair and it took about 35 minutes to get between the hotel and the Fair.
5. The breakfast at the hotel, Bircher muesli and fresh fruit every morning, and many other delicious foods.
6. The Bauhaus style apartment buildings and orderly, well planned and well designed architecture.
7. The allotments alongside the railway track, carefully tended and fertile.
8. The forests that are still in evidence, especially near the Park Hotel and the patchwork of well cultivated fields of dark soil that you see from the train on the way to and from the “Messe” (Fairgrounds).
9. The Beer and the Riesling (sausages and sauerkraut not as much)

1. The collective presentation of titles from small and author publishers “Founded in 1979, the Group promotes small publishers without whose creativity and dedication the cultural diversity of books in Germany would not be possible in its present form” (from the Pocket Guide to the Fair).
2. The Comics Centre
3. The International Library Centre
4. The Booksellers Centre
5. The Children’s Book Forum
6. Some of the many discussions about Digital Publishing, Mobile publishing, and Digital rights.

For more photos have a look here and here.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 24th, 2011 @15:30 #

    It sounds amazing and intense and fizztacular. So glad you got to see Hilda again. I hope you hugged her from me. Thanks for these impressions, really enjoyed reading.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    October 26th, 2011 @12:48 #

    Cape Town - World Design Capital 2014, I want to start a lobby for a Book Design Award. I think it is a good way to get readers, publishers, booksellers etc thinking about books and design, real physical books versus virtual books and to up the ante here in SA. Well designed doesn't have to mean super expensive. If you are interested in this please let me know. Would love to brain storm and find others who are interested.

    Be fab to foreground our book designers and to get them onto the map in a big way, and not just as behind the scenes people.


    Helen, it was lovely to see Hilda, we hung out a lot, even had a sauna in the hotel, but there was still so much more to say and discuss. Maybe she will come to the Cape Town Book Fair next year?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Tracey F</a>
    Tracey F
    October 26th, 2011 @19:18 #

    Thanks for sharing your strongest impressions, the dark soil and the stubborn publishers and iceland's misty white pictures. Wonderful to hear real detail, makes me feel like I fell off my armchair of a minute.


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