Frankfurt Book Fair

Diversity, decolonization and the internationalization of small publishing business in the special program of Frankfurt


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This year, within all programs supporting “emerging markets” and young professionals in the industry, Frankfurt gathered 110 representatives of the publishing business from more than 50 countries, presenting three separate programs. In addition to the Invitation Program and Fellowship Program in 2022, the organizers offered a new program for the development of international cooperation.

Together with the Book Arsenal and the Goethe-Institut in Ukraine, the Frankfurt Book Fair, with the support of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, announced a Special Program for publishers from Ukraine and neighboring countries (spoiler: except for russia and belarus). The project crystallized from the “summer academies” format. The tradition of such academies under the Frankfurt Fair brand has a long history and started back in the 90s, but this year’s Academy, which was planned in Kyiv, was canceled due to the war.


This special program united very different people representing different cultures and different worlds. Owners of media holdings and tiny publishers; those who have just published Harry Potter for the first time in their native language and those who only publish local authors; those who defend the independence of their language, and those who do not need to fight for it. A total of 17 publishers were selected to participate, 9 of which are from Ukraine.

Outside the borders of the geographical region – but with a common history

Previously, the program was aimed at Eastern Europe, but the geography of the participants cannot be defined by one geopolitical region: there are 5,500 kilometers between the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan, but at the same time they all have a rather strong connection, common aspirations and amazing power in implementing plans. Until now they were doing it only within their own countries, but it was during the Program that publishers were developing international projects through professional networking and informal acquaintances.


“For us, the international focus of this program was extremely important, because the potential for cooperation between the representatives of the region “Ukraine and neighboring countries” is extremely large: there are common challenges and understandable tasks due to shared historical experiences, there’s a mutual understanding, cultural traditions that resonate, a large number of horizontal connections between different people in neighboring countries, a lower threshold for entering each other’s markets…”, notes Yulia Kozlovets, coordinator of the Book Arsenal and the Special Program from Ukraine.

 “For the Frankfurt Book Fair and our partners — Book Arsenal and Goethe Institute, — it was important from the very beginning to keep the spirit of our cooperation within this program, and our cooperation was always international”, says Niki Théron, curator of the special program. She adds: “It’s not about only one country at the spotlight, it’s about putting international connections in the spotlight, and of course placing Ukraine on the map as an actor of the international book trade”.


Even the name of the program sounded like a hint of a departure from colonial discourse, and the participants themselves felt it. Representatives from russia and belarus were not among the list of admitted countries. However, Kazakhstan was not there either, but after the announcement of the program, the organizers received a call.


“Raisa Sairan Kader from Steppe & World Publishing from Kazakhstan gave me a call and told “I can’t understand why we are not on the list, because we are facing exactly the same challenges as Ukraine before the war, our country flooded with russian speaking titles”. I was absolutely convinced and I must admit my ignorance — and it was a great application”, Niki shared.


Participants from the countries of Central Europe, who already have significant experience in selling rights, but were focused only on Western markets, had the opportunity to start a new format of cooperation:

“It has been amazing to meet so many great people. Not only from the publishing point of view, but also to meet strong women and men as well; not only Ukrainians, but Georgians, Armenians and people from other countries. I wouldn’t be able to reach them without this program. It gives an idea to consider not only the western markets, but to look to the Eastern part of Europe”, says Petra Novakova from the Czech publishing house “Labyrint”, co-founder of the children’s magazine “Raketa”.

During the offline part of the program, which took place right during the fair, the participants managed to balance between their own stands, scheduled talks and all meetings of the Special Program. Thus, the Ukrainian publishing house IST Publishing, in addition to participating in the program, managed a collective stand for Ukrainian publishers working in the field of culture and art, publishing art books and photo books, and also represented its own brand: “As a publishing house, we received many useful contacts: from book stores and distributors, to cooperation with new publishers. The sale of rights is not our main focus of activity, however, during Frankfurt, we received an offer to sell the rights of our book in two languages ​​at once: French and Italian”, comments the co-founder of the publishing house Anastasia Leonova.


Independently of each other, Ukrainian publishers characterize the program as a “breath of fresh air”. Firstly, this is a return to the usual format of personal meetings, which were rare during the period of lockdowns, and secondly, Ukrainian publishers came to Germany from air alerts and strikes on Kyiv, Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities. Thanks to the two components of the program (online and offline), as well as the persistence of the publishers, they started networking – and some even signing contracts – even before the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“Main negotiations and signings of agreements were conducted in advance online. But it can’t be said that the offline format has become secondary or unimportant. We all create emotions, and only during private meetings can we fully share these emotions with our partners and audience. This inspires the creation of something new”, says Artem Braichenko, the co-founder of the “їzhak” publishing house and the “їzhakultura” project, who has already sold the rights to his publications in France, Germany, Italy and Japan.


Networking, which went beyond the limits of one program, became a special opportunity. It’s great to be able to communicate with participants from parallel programs that Frankfurt is doing. Among the participants of the special program there are 9 publishers from Ukraine. We all know each other, but getting to know participants from other countries is very valuable, especially in an informal atmosphere where you can talk sincerely and spend time together. Almost every participant from other countries asked how we manage to work. No one can believe that, despite the war, Ukrainian publishers are making new books, that they are investing in this. We have to tell the world about ourselves”, says Iryna Shchepina, the co-founder of the Vikhola publishing house.

“We haven’t stopped work since the beginning of the war, so I can’t say that Frankfurt gave us the opportunity to “wake up.” But it gave new opportunities for starting new projects”, says Olga Besarab, a project manager of The Old Lion Publishing House, which already sells rights to its publications in more than 40 countries around the world. It would seem that for most publishers, “small” markets mean little interest. But Olga is convinced: the participating countries are close mentally, and this makes it possible to better understand both each other and the needs of readers. And therefore to offer really win-win titles that will be understandable and can be well received by readers.


Ukrainian participants note: almost every publishing house from neighboring countries has already implemented projects to support Ukraine. For example, Petra Novakova brought the Ukrainian-language issue of the children’s magazine “Raketa” to the meeting, Polish publishing houses printed books in Ukrainian, Georgia organized fundraising and many other support actions.

Local book publishing or playing “on the stronger side”?


Unique cases were demonstrated by publishing houses from Kazakhstan and Armenia, where local book publishing is (or was) in competition with russian-language and russian books. “We have been publishing books only in Kazakh for the past 5 years”, says Raisa of Steppe & World Publishing, that first published Harry Potter in Kazakh in 2020.

Artak Aleksanyan, the founder of Newmag publishing house and the head of the largest private television company in Armenia, is also convinced that it’s possible to change the imbalance. “Only four years ago, 70% of the Armenian book market consisted of russian-language titles. Currently, 60% of publications are published in Armenian. I don’t really understand book distributors – if there is a book in Armenian, why make a promo for other languages? But now they realized that we will do aggressive PR for the Armenian language and they stopped doing it. We changed the rules of the game”, comments Artak.


For him, as well as for Raisa, this is the first visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair. He came to book publishing from the media business 4 years ago, and next year he is opening an imprint to create children’s literature. “This year we had a unique opportunity to explore Frankfurt not only by visiting or participating in the national pavilion, but also to network, see from the inside how Frankfurt works, and what works for us”, says Artak. “Yes, in theory you can find all these publishers online, but it’s not the same as holding a book, when you can understand how it will look, even with Armenian letters”, he adds.

Zuzanna Dušičková, co-founder of the Slovak publishing house ZumZum, also came to the publishing business from other creative industries. Previously, she created film projects, and now – children’s literature and artistic photo projects of Slovak authors. The biggest insight for Zuzanna was learning the situation in other countries: “I realize how easy I can publish books in Slovakia. Raisa from Kazakhstan is trying to save her national language, so she publishes only in Kazakh. For her, Ukraine is the country that proves: if someone starts doing it, it can happen. In Slovakia, publishing in Slovak language is not an issue, because it is normal”.

What’s next?

The purpose of the program is to establish a connection between publishers from different countries and to lay the foundation for further cooperation. Previously, the main thesis of the summer academies in Frankfurt was reduced to the idea of neighboring countries as a start before moving to large markets. However, today neighboring markets are not just a stage, but a separate direction of sustainable work, and it’s much easier to do it together.

Ileana Achim, director of the Romanian children’s publishing house Editura Frontiera, is already planning the next steps: “We will continue to collaborate with Poland, and also plan to start a collaboration with Ukraine, Georgia and the Czech Republic. We intend to include more titles from Eastern Europe in our publishing programme. On a larger scale, we plan to set up the Romanian section of IBBY, which will help us better promote Romanian children’s books, as well as nominating Romanian authors and illustrators for international awards”

Eva Bolinska from the Polish publishing house Znak is also aiming for cooperation, in particular on Eastern European markets: “Znak cooperates with almost the whole world. We are constantly learning and evolving, looking for the right homes for our great literature and authors. I would like to strengthen relations in our region, visit book fairs in the Czech Republic, Georgia, learn more about markets, and to visit the next book fair in independent Ukraine”.


Petra Novakova is also set to cooperate in future: “With Artak we have started to talk about possible editions in Armenian. It would be nice if it turned into a real business — and this is our task and main goal”.


The special program doesn’t end.


“This year, of course, became the biggest test for the book industry, but I believe that the program will have a future, because Ukrainian publishers, in addition to the fact that they are learning a lot now, also have something to teach the rest of the publishing world: endurance, crisis management and solidarity with each other”, says Maria Shubchyk, program coordinator from the Goethe Institute in Ukraine.


“It is interesting that even after the end of the week in Frankfurt, we continue to call and help each other, and the organizers arrange additional lectures for us, because we did not have time to ask all the questions during our stay in Frankfurt”, shares Anastasia Leonova, “As our program coordinator Niki says: “It’s not just for a week, it’s forever. We’re a family now”.