Industry sales may be shrinking but things are looking up for the Leipzig Book Fair. This year, the focus is on Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian literature.
Leipzig Book Fair Director Oliver Zille was called an artefact by the city's Mayor Michael Faber. Believe it or not, the comment was actually a compliment and not a reference to Zille's age. Zille is responsible for turning the event into the "younger sister" of the world's largest book fair in Frankfurt.
Fair bucking industry trend
The 2012 Leipzig Book Fair has seen an eight percent rise in individual exhibitors from last year. Unlike the fair in Frankfurt, Leipzig allows young readers much like young authors to find an audience. Independent publishers can also get noticed. This year, more than 2600 events on the fair grounds and in the city of Leipzig are bringing together readers and writers.
"The book industry is facing a hard time. The market is shrinking", said Gottfried Honnefelder, President of the German Associate of Book Traders, at the fair's opening ceremony. Across the industry revenue was down 1.8 percent in 2011, as book stores continue to close. The rising sales of e-books present challenges for the industry. "Freedom on the Internet" does not translate into "free," Honnefelder noted.
He is especially concerned about copyright on the Internet and believes that creative work should be rewarded.
"Intellectual property ensures cultural diversity," he added.
To demonstrate cultural diversity, the Leipzig Book Fair is focusing on literature coming out of eastern and southeastern Europe. It is meant to be a bridge to the German book market. The program and the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding also show that some places have vanished from the literary map.
Looking to the east
Under the theme "transit", literature from Poland, Ukraine and Belarus will be Leipzig's literary focus for the coming three years. Curator and Austrian writer Martin Pollack, who won last year's Leipzig Book Award, believes the three countries are at different transitional phases. "Writers are working under different conditions", he said.
"The situation in Belarus is rather grim," Pollack added.
"The country is moving backwards under Dictator Lukaschenko. Works are being censored. And sometimes the publication of books is hindered by blocking the delivery of paper."
"It is no accident that some of the authors live abroad and several important books are published there," Pollack said.
Most of the works by Belarusian writers are published in Russia, and Lithuania and Poland to a lesser degree.
"That is quite symptomatic of the situation, if Russia is more liberal than Belarus," he added.
On Europe's margins
Despite these differences, the fair has managed to deliberately bring a focus to these countries. Poland, Ukraine and Belarus share a history that is centuries old; a history in which boundaries have constantly shifted, even those of language. They form a region that endured occupation, mass killings and reprisals during Hitler's war and Stalin's rule – European Book prize winner, American historian Timothy Snyder, recounts the region's history in his book "Bloodlands."
The region draws more from its literary history than the West, according to Pollack. Germans could also benefit from reading Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian literature.
"It is anyway a European story, (and) it is also part of our history," Pollack said.
The region that once lay behind the iron curtain during the cold war is now on the European cusp. Its writers, featuring at the fair, have a lot to bring to the European story.
Author: Gabriela Schaaf / cc
Editor: Jessie Wingard