Frankfurt Book Fair

Spotlight on Slovenia at the Frankfurt Book Fair: Exploring innovation and challenges in niche markets


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Editor’s note: Slovenia, the Guest of Honour at the 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair, has been preparing for several years to present the program “Honeycomb of Words” this fall. Chytomo is closely following the project which will celebrate Slovenia’s presence not only at the fair but also in European publishing. We spoke with Miha Kovač, the Slovenian curator of the project, about the progress of the preparation, the political pressure on the organizers, how Slovenian writers are acting like footballers, and how English presents both an opportunity and a threat.


Renowned Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently highlighted in a video the unique position of Slovenia, a relatively affluent and western-leaning Balkan country, as a smaller nation adeptly maneuvering between larger powers. Although Žižek’s comments pertained to Slovenia’s political history, they could just as aptly describe its place in the publishing world.




Miha Kovač, who is curating the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor Slovenia program set for Oct. 18-22, said in a recent conversation with Chytomo that being “smaller” has its advantages, such as not taking oneself too seriously. “For instance, when Spain or France were the guests of honor, they arrived in Frankfurt with this mindset of ‘We are the biggest, the best, the most significant.’ But as a Slovenian, you can’t approach it that way; it would look rather silly,” he said.


While Slovenia may be geographically small, its position at the fair is no accident: the country boasts a rich literary tradition, a voracious reading public and a robust publishing industry. According to data compiled in 2019 (PDF) by the Slovenian Book Agency, an independent, government-funded entity, approximately 6,000 titles are published annually in the country. With a population of about 2 million, this equates to around 3,000 titles published per million inhabitants — a figure comparable to that of Scandinavian countries and the UK.


Vodnik Homestead's 'Libraries under the Treetops' initiative brings reading to parks across Slovenia every summer. Comfortable chairs are set up outdoors, drawing residents to sit, read and indulge in literature. (Photo courtesy of Miha Kovač)

Vodnik Homestead’s ‘Libraries under the Treetops’ initiative brings reading to parks across Slovenia every summer. Comfortable chairs are set up outdoors, drawing residents to sit, read and indulge in literature. (Photo courtesy of Miha Kovač)



Kovač, who served as the editorial director for two of Slovenia’s premier publishing houses before transitioning to a professorship in publishing at the University of Ljubljana, notes that his team crafted the “Honey Comb of Words” pavilion with an eye toward collaboration, particularly with authors and publishing professionals from similarly situated countries.


This emphasis is especially noticeable in numerous panels of the Professional Program aimed at markets “with a smaller return.” Over a three-day span, expert panels will delve into the dynamics of smaller markets in relation to cultural policy, academic publishing, audiobooks, EU initiatives, and a session titled “The Masters of the Micro-universe.” According to its synopsis, this session explores what kind of “tricks” successful publishers do to “outwit the limitations forced on them by the size of their market.”


“We will discuss all kinds of problems these markets face and also the innovations these markets have had to produce to survive. We will have a lot of speakers from the Baltic states because we really think that Baltic challenges are quite similar to our problems,” he notes.


English: opportunity and threat

The program will also feature a panel discussing the role of English in smaller markets that will explore, among other things, the extent to which “English-language books compete with books in local languages across the EU.”


Kovač notes that, due to both history and modern globalization, English is widely spoken in Slovenia — it has been their second language since Yugoslavia split with the Soviet Union in 1948. This presents both opportunities and challenges.


“Slovenians have this funny accent; you can hear it in Melania Trump. She’s the best example of the ‘Slovenian School of English.’ And you can hear it in my accent too. But basically, we are quite fluent in English. This interaction with the West was much more lively than in other former communist countries. And that’s also why we have this problem now: we are losing the best authors,” he says.


The trend of authors from smaller markets being pressured to conform to larger markets is not new, and it’s an issue Ukrainians have also faced. In his 2002 essay “What Language Are You From?” (part of the collection “My Final Territories”), Yuri Andrukhovych describes being on a panel about East-West literary relations. During this panel, a French book agent advises writers from Central and Eastern Europe to make two subtle adaptations to reach broader audiences: change their names to make them more pronounceable and switch the language they write in.


Kovač says he has seen a new crop of writers in Slovenia doing exactly that: changing their names and/or switching to English. For instance, best-selling Slovenian children’s book author Lila Prap is actually Lilijana Praprotnik Zupančič (though she writes in Slovenian). And Slovenian writer and translator Kaja Bucik Vavpetič, a panelist at Frankfurt, has found success writing “sexy paranormal romance for women” in English under the pen name “Zoe Ashwood.” Other authors, like the aforementioned Žižek, now publish in English first and then follow with their native language.


Kovač compares the migration of Slovenian writers to foreign markets to the country’s football/soccer players.


When a Slovenian football player becomes good, he moves to Germany or England or Italy. And it’s the same with authors.


Kovač estimates that about 20 percent of the book market in Slovenia is in English. The issue the panel will discuss hits close to home for him.


“I had this intense disagreement right here in my home with our youngest because she came home one day with [a book]. And I said, ‘You know, this exists in Slovenian, and it’s already here, in our home library.’ She replied, ‘I don’t want to read this in Slovenian; English is much better.’ So this is anecdotal evidence, which suggests that we might have a small problem here. But this is not only our problem; it’s a problem in almost any country,” he says.


Slovenian pavilion at the Frankfurt Book Fair (plan)



Pushing back against government interference


Kovač says that he and his team (Katja Stergar, director of the Slovenian Book Agency; Amalija Maček, a program advisor; and Matthias Göritz, the German co-curator) have been to FBF over 80 times between them. Their preparations for the pavilion have progressed rapidly over the last 10 months.


However, it wasn’t always so straightforward. When Slovenia was first named the guest of honor for this year’s FBF in 2018, Janez Janša, a far-right populist, was the prime minister. Kovač says his government initially took a very “hands-on” approach to the fair.


That, he says, entailed a list of Slovenian authors they approved of (many of whom had never been translated), centered around a particular theme that aligned with their political platform.


“They wanted to present this story about Slovenian independence and how we suffered in communism, and so on and so forth. But stories about 40 years old, you know, stories about communism, are not really something quite German readers would be interested in. So the Frankfurt Book Fair was very unhappy with this.”


The two prior curators stepped down. Kovač was then appointed, partly due to his familiarity with Frankfurt. Subsequently, the political landscape shifted in 2022 when Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party was defeated in the parliamentary elections by a center-left coalition led by the present Prime Minister, Robert Golob.


Kovač mentions that with the current Slovenian Minister of Culture, Asta Vrečko, communication continues, but the dynamics have changed.


“The minister, sometimes she will also ask me, ‘What are you doing?… but she doesn’t expect me that I will [automatically] listen to her, we’re just having a constructive discussion. But when we had a right wing government, it was the minister who had to decide [which authors] will go to the fair. And that’s something that, for Slovenian standards, is not acceptable.”


Slovenian pavilion at the Frankfurt Book Fair (plan)

‘We can do this’


Kovač notes that Slovenia’s status as “Honored Guest” was made possible in part by the increasing number of books from Slovenia being translated into other languages, a trend Kovač attributes to investments from both the private and public sectors.


The Slovenian Book Agency noted in 2019 that about 100 translations of Slovene books were being published each year. However, Kovač says that for the past three years, the number has been closer to 200 translations per year (from about 50 books, as individual books are typically translated into multiple languages).


He says the bulk of the translations come from two publishing houses (Beletrina and Mladinska knjiga), and he believes it’s critical that both have experienced staff dedicated specifically to rights management.


“My assumption is that in the rights business, what really matters is that you know a lot of people. And you also need to know what your colleagues from publishing houses are interested in,” he says.


Those translations are only possible with translators, of course, and on that front, he credits the work of the Slovenian Book Agency, including translation grants for foreign publishers, workshops for translators, and grants for Slovenian publishers to attend book fairs and network with potential rights buyers.


Participants of the Litransformer workshop for translators in Ljubljana, Slovenia. (Photo by Matej Pušnik, courtesy of Mihael Kovač)

Participants of the Litransformer workshop for translators in Ljubljana, Slovenia. (Photo by Matej Pušnik, courtesy of Mihael Kovač)



The markets of continental Europe are generally the most important for Slovenian books, including Germany, Austria, and Italy, followed by English. Children’s books have performed particularly well.


The high rate of translation meant that when planning the fair, Kovač said the planning committee considered it one of the criteria when deciding which authors to invite.


“We are working with authors who have published translations in the last three years. And that’s it. And we have enough translations that we can do this,” he said.


He hopes that the exposure Slovenian writers and publishers gain from FBF will mean that the rate of translations will maintain its current pace (of about 200 contracts a year), and that there will be an uptick in the number of Slovenian books being reviewed in international publications and blogs. This, he believes, could, over time, dramatically increase the revenue Slovenian publishers and authors earn from rights sales.


“Of course, this is connected to what authors write because if authors don’t produce anything sellable, then this fails. But my guess is that with this pressure from foreign markets, authors will become very interested in selling their books abroad, because for many of them, this doubles or triples their earnings. There is a financial motivation to work on this. So my guess is that authors and publishers will be interested in pursuing this,” he said.