Oscar Ekström: The core of a fair is people meeting each other


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The Gothenburg Book Fair, which took place in September 2022, was one of the most prominent in terms of support for Ukrainian authors and Ukrainian publishing (after the Frankfurt and Warsaw fairs). The festival not only gathered an audience on a nearly pre-covid scale, but also became a platform for socially important topics, including the amplification of voices from South Africa and Ukraine, which were the focus topics. In a conversation with the program director Oskar Ekström, we recall how the book festival works to strengthen freedom of speech and what are the future prospects for the Swedish-Ukrainian cultural dialogue.

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Oskar, tell us, how was the festival? Was it successful after the 3 years of lockdown?

– The book fair in Göteborg is unique. It’s been running since 1985, so it’s almost 40 years old now. It means a lot to many people not only in the literary world of Sweden but also to many teachers, librarians, and cultural workers. In 2016-2017, we had some controversy about one of the exhibitors, whose participation many people did not want to see because of their right-wing texts. That was a crisis, but we came back in 2018-2019 and then the coronavirus started. For the past two years we have been holding the fair online, we joined through the Book Fair Play streaming service, and with its help we’ve been broadcasting literary discussions.


In 2016-17 the right-wing radical newspaper Nya Tider exhibited at the fair. This led to neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement demonstration in front of the hall where the Fair was held.

– How many discussions have you broadcasted over this time?

– In 2020, there were approximately 140 events. And last year there were even more, about 200. We had professional TV teams with several high-quality cameras, light and sound equipment. We reached new audiences throughout Sweden with this service. So, it was successful in that sense.

But, of course, the core of a festival or fair is people meeting each other. Thus, we were looking forward to meeting our guests offline.

Normally, we plan a book fair a year and a half ahead. After last year’s digital event, we decided to return to a large physical format. And last autumn it was very difficult to predict what would happen with the virus and everything. We had many discussions with publishing houses here in Sweden and decided we have to go through with it, we have to plan and hope that it is possible.


In winter, it was confirmed, and we realized we can plan a full-scale fair, but our main concern was whether the audience would return? Would people come? Or has the book fair lost its appeal?


We were still worried whether we could cope. But after we closed the fair, we found out that 2 thousand people visited us and about 7 thousand watched the online broadcast. So, it was really a big return for us. And everybody who was there was so very happy to meet again and was very positive about everything. So, yeah, we consider it a success.

And what are the main takeaways you’ve learned through the coronavirus years? Maybe in terms of broadcasting or program planning? Has anything changed drastically in your approach to the festival?

– Firstly, we really reached a new audience from all around Sweden. I mean people in the northern part of Sweden, for example, used to follow the Book Fair remotely and read about it only in the newspapers. And now they could watch the talks, and we got a lot of positive feedback from new visitors. We saw that coming to the book fair is problematic for many Swedes, and we want to continue the practice of online broadcasting.


But on the other hand, we also realized that in order for the Book Fair to live and grow, we need an event in Gothenburg to hold our meetings on a large scale. It’s not possible to make an online version only for the long run. The book fair is about people meeting each other, buying books, discovering new writers and so on. Watching online is not enough.

You’ve mentioned people from different regions of Sweden. Could you tell us more about literary festivals and book fairs in those regions? Are there any niche or big events? How did the pandemic influence them?

– To the north, in Umeå town, there is a literary festival called Littfest, that has been running for 15 years. It’s not a book fair, and obviously it cannot be compared to our fair, because it’s much smaller. But it’s still a very nice event and the organizers do a great job.


Then in Stockholm, there’s a new festival called The Book Weekend in Stockholm. It’s organized as “an umbrella” where different publishing houses open their “offices” and invite the audience. They have small stages scattered around Stockholm and all communication is done through a website and a map where people search for the event or the publisher. It takes place all over the city of Stockholm. I think that’s a nice new thing that’s been conducted twice so far. It started under the covid restrictions. Several hundred people watch the event, but there are many such small events that together create a festival.


Of course, there are many smaller festivals all over Sweden in smaller towns. There are local fairs that focus primarily on book sales, and there are festivals that focus on discussions and meetings with writers. Over the last 5–10 years, we’ve seen more and smaller events popping up that are run locally.

– And do you collaborate with them? Do you share themes or events?

Actually, not so much. But we are in touch with them: we follow their work, visit them. We are friends, but we do not organize common events. Given the number of organizations and publishers who want to participate in the Göteborg Book Fair, it’s hard for us to say yes to everyone. Yet, I think it’s important for our country to have both large and smaller festivals, so that everything is not in one place. And that all these events take place throughout the year.


Do you attend literary festivals and book fairs in other countries? Which of them have impressed you so far?

Well, the Frankfurt Book Festival is the world’s largest one. It’s been a very important friend of the Göteborg Book Fair since the very beginning. And we are in touch with them.


We get a lot of inspiration from them and we think they makea fantastic fair. But in many ways it’s so different from the Göteborg Book Fair. We are very focused on talks and workshops. A wide audience meets writers and buys books. In Frankfurt, it’s more about the business-to-business model – agents buy rights and many exhibitors present their catalogues to the industry. It’s different but we try to go there pretty much every year.


Then, we have a festival in Denmark – Louisiana Literary Festival. It’s fantastic. They have great discussions and it’s just impressive.


There’s a festival which I’ve never visited but I really want to go. It’s the Hay Festival in Wales in late May. It is a problem for us, because we are announcing our program at this time. But I’ve been following that festival for several years and they do a great job. I hope to go there one day.

Coming back to your festival, what is the role of the program director in creating the program? In your case as far as we know there are 4 thousand events. And I assume that not all of them can be easily managed. Do you sign any contracts or agreements regarding the quality of events?

– The Göteborg Fair started when two directors met at a conference in 1984 and they thought it was too boring. So, they agreed to do something more inspiring for librarians. They invited writers to give presentations to librarians. And that was the start. The first year they had Nobel Prize winner Isaac Singer visit them and about 5 thousand people came. It was considered a success back then. As you can see, writers, talks and seminars have been at the core of the fair from the very beginning.


My main responsibility is to build a seminar program for the fair and this year there were around 320 talks, lectures and discussions about literature, education, politics and many other things. But fiction is the main focus.


We also have about 20 or 25 open stages at the fair ground and they are specially focused on crime, food, education and science. There are different focus themes for each stage.


We are involved in creating the program for some of those stages on a commercial basis. There are different models for this. But some of them are completely organised and created by outside organisations.


For example, one of the teachers’ unions in Sweden is responsible for the educational scene and the program of this scene. We have a close dialogue with them and see how the program is progressing. But we are not involved in terms of saying this is not good and this is good. We just monitor the progress. And we think what really adds value to the book fair is that different organisations from the outside are involved in the participation and preparation, which also helps to communicate with their target audience.

A huge team must be working on this festival. How many people are involved?

There are 4 people in my team working on seminars. Then we have 3 people working with communications. And we have some people working with fairgrounds sales. And, of course, we have technicians, production planners, etc. Overall, a team of 13–14 people works on the book fair all year round.


My team starts working on planning the program early on. We discuss with Swedish publishers who they are publishing next year, maybe there are some international guests we can invite and so on. And then we start working on a full scale somewhere around January. When we have confirmations from the participants, we can plan the program.

Do you usually have an international audience, not invited participants but regular audience, like readers, book buyers from other countries?

We don’t have so many visitors from outside the Nordic countries, mostly visitors from Norway and Finland. We also have many Finnish and Norwegian writers present at the fair. When we broadcast our programme during the pandemic, we saw that we had viewers from 30 different countries. But we don’t know whether they were locals or Swedes living abroad.


What are your signature events?

– The absolute majority are talks between writers and interviews with 1–3 writers about their new books or about a certain topic we have highlighted in their texts. For example, it can be two writers who have released new books, and they have a common theme, say, motherhood. So we organize a talk between them conducted by a professional interviewer. Another example could be crime in Sweden, that could be a common topic for 2-3 crime novels.

We have some debates as well, about political issues and others. We’ve just had political elections in Sweden. So, the debate at this year’s fair was much about what happened there and how to understand it. We discuss pretty much everything that is going on in Swedish society, whether it’s cultural or political issues. We don’t have many concerts and theatre plays, but every year there’s always something with performances or theatre. We don’t have a big section for it.


This year we had a new thing called Book Fair by Night, that started at 7 pm on Friday and lasted till 2 am with DJs.

Was this an open event?

It was open for everyone. And we did a program on 5 different stages. We had bars with food and drinks. We did a scenography with lights, so it felt like a club there. The program was aimed at a younger audience with live podcasts and interviews, and Swedish musicians and artists. It was like some sort of  club festival, but with a focus on literature. It was really nice ​​that a lot of people came.

Back to the program, how did you choose the topic for this year’s book fair? How does the selection process usually work?

Every year we have a Guest of Honour, it can be a country or culture. In 2019, it was South Korea. We worked with them for almost a year on that program. The aim was to give a perspective on modern literature and society, and cultural life in that country. In 2020, we planned to have South Africa as a Guest of Honour, but that was postponed for 2 years. So they became the Guest of Honor this year, and we did about 20 or 25 events together and there were like 40 South African guests both writers who had been published in Sweden before and younger authors, spoken word artists, who had not been published but who are part of contemporary South African literature.


Of course, we had events discussing the apartheid regime, but also what it is like to be a writer in South Africa today.


We also discuss broader topics, such as democracy. Next year, we are going to have a city as a concept. We think that a city can be explored from so many different perspectives. It is of course about urban planning and architecture, about climate change, about global urbanization, but it’s also a literary concept in which the city has become the subject of many historical and contemporary novels, where the city can be the setting of the novel and sometimes even a character. 


This year we devoted a lot of time to crime in fiction, as it’s becoming increasingly popular in Sweden.


Normally, we work out the theme for one or two years ahead, but the planning process can vary from 2 years to six months. The extra theme that we had this year, the ‘Voices from Ukraine’, was created in March right after the russian invasion. We felt that we wanted to do something symbolic to support Ukraine and also to invite Ukrainians who could educate the Swedish audience about the situation. And then we communicated this to our network of publishers and organisations telling them about our idea, and we got a lot of responses of support and people wanted to be involved.


The visitors of the Göteborg Book Festival noted that the social component was really strong this year. Why is it important for you and your team as organizers?

We see the book fair as a very important arena for democracy and freedom of expression in Sweden. It’s not the only one but the one of the largest and most important events in Sweden where many political and literary issues are discussed and the media coverage is very extensive as well. These are the issues at the core of the fair that we think are an important part of our identity. And we always work with freedom of expression in different forms.


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


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The material was created in cooperation with the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine.