Sayoni Basu was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, showing off Duckbill books to the world.
I am lucky enough to be part of the Invitation Programme for publishers which the Frankfurt Book Fair, in partnership with LitProm, an organization for promoting translations in Germany, organizes for independent publishers from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. I was happy enough to be part of the programme, which enabled Duckbill to have a stand—a real stand!—at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Somehow it felt like proof of existence.
The programme began with a series of seminars for a few days before the Fair started. There were interesting, challenging workshops on design and selling rights and navigating the experience that is Frankfurt.
We were taken care of by the wonderful and very patient people from LitProm—Cory, Bernadette, Torschen and Doris. For all of us, navigation around Frankfurt forever starts from what has been named Doris’s Corner, which is where we had to meet her one evening. So later, when we gave directions to one another, all orientation was always from Doris’s Corner.
We are a bunch of small independent publishers, and everyone is a bit of a maverick. Which is why I also felt great sympathy for our carers—they had a bunch of twenty-five people to look after who are doing what they do because they like being their own bosses and are used to leading their own businesses.
We are all publishers from countries which are not very rich, where there are major distribution issues, sometimes censorship issues and sometimes war. Among the most inspiring presentations was by a colleague from Syria who talked about the impossibility of publishing in his country. And he ended his presentation by asking, Why do I still publish? And he showed us a picture of a small child sitting amidst the debris of Damascus, holding on to a small book. ‘Hope,’ he said. Because books bring hope.
And within the group, we rapidly discovered that despite the different appearances, cultures and languages, we were all kindred souls and more. Very few people any of us know individually have as much in common as we did as a group. We all worry about printers’ bills, and we all believe firmly that the books we publish are the best in the known universe. We are all CEOs or equivalent, and we all make coffee and pack books and typeset and design, when the need arises. We spend happy evenings arguing about point size and leading and paper types with passionate intensity. And we all looked out for one another, found books and publishers for others to approach, and there was a wonderful corner of the huge impersonal Frankfurt Book Fair which felt like home because our little stalls were there.
And we learnt about one another’s markets and what works where. And many of us are going to go away with print and technology ideas that may change bits of our businesses. And I saw some utterly fantastic designs—especially from the South American publishers! And because for us our authors are part of the family, a few authors dropped by to recite poetry and illustrators to show off their work.
The programme and the Fair end today, and I am writing this sitting at my little booth. I don’t think I have been so inspired for a long, long time about the absolutely wonderful things that small publishers can do when they set their minds to it. And most of us were fairly run down and shabby (though one amongst us dresses with the flamboyant elegance of a drug dealer and owns a yatch—‘a small one,’ he said modestly), I don’t think I have met such a shining bunch of people in a long time.