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Literary industry hopeful Ottawa will accept Frankfurt Book Fair invitation

Visitors at the last year's Frankfurt Book Fair, October 15, 2015.

Less than two years after declining the invitation, Canada has once again been asked by the organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the largest and most important events on the global publishing calendar, to be the festival's guest of honour, an opportunity supporters maintain would provide an unprecedented boost to Canada's literary industry and put a year-long spotlight on the country's cultural sector.

Whether or not the invitation to the world's biggest book trade fair is accepted will be decided by the Department of Canadian Heritage, which is currently reviewing a proposal which asks for a little more than $4-million in funding.

The organizers of the fair had originally requested an answer by March 1, although an extension has been granted until the end of the month.

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Caroline Fortin, who heads the committee created by Livres Canada Books, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit that helps domestic publishers sell to foreign markets, which is spearheading the bid, has been in this position before. Canada was tapped as guest of honour for the 2017 fair, coinciding with the country's sesquicentennial, but funding – the committee was requesting approximately $6.5-million at the time – was denied, even after Ms. Fortin says the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Juergen Boos, visited Ottawa in an effort to meet with then-Canadian Heritage minister Shelly Glover, a meeting that never transpired.

"We felt ashamed by all this," says Ms. Fortin, who is also executive director of the Montreal-based publishing house Québec Amérique. "We felt bad that we couldn't even have a discussion with the government about the invitation."

When news of the declined invitation was reported last fall, in the run-up to the federal election, a handful of Liberal candidates, including Stéphane Dion, Chrystia Freeland and Bill Morneau, released an open letter criticizing the decision.

"Needless to say that the Conservative government's decision was a great disappointment to the Canadian publishing community, as this was a unique opportunity to showcase our authors and publishing professionals throughout the world," the letter read in part. "Now more than ever, we need a new vision on cultural issues in Canada – a vision based on the idea that culture is an essential component of the fabric of our country."

After the letter was published, organizers of the book fair once again contacted Ms. Fortin, and a follow-up meeting was held the day before last October's fair began, where organizers expressed strong interest in issuing a second invitation if the Liberals were elected. Ms. Fortin flew back to Canada on the Sunday night, the day before the election.

"The Liberals won, and Frankfurt just came back straightaway to say 'We'd be willing to invite you again,'" says Ms. Fortin.

"I think there was a real worry in missing out on 2017 that we would go right back to the end of the line," says John Degen, executive director of the Writers' Union of Canada, which earlier this week released a letter supporting the bid.

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The second invitation was issued for 2019, although, after Tuesday's deadline passed without an answer, both parties agreed to move Canada's guest of honour slot a year back, to 2020, while the proposal is reviewed.

"We sure hope, now, that the extension they have will end [with] a very positive outcome," says Ms. Fortin.

The fair's guest of honour program has existed since 1976. This year's featured country is Flanders and the Netherlands, the 2017 spot originally offered to Canada was later accepted by France, and 2018 will focus on Georgia. The book fair, which has existed in one version or another for roughly 500 years, is a five-day event that attracts a quarter of a million attendees – mostly from the publishing industry – from over 100 countries.

"It's been described, quite rightly, as the Olympics of books," says Robert J. Dees, president of Robert Rose, a Toronto-based publisher of lifestyle books, and a member of the committee. "And I think that if you think of it in those terms, you start to get the scope of the event."

The 56-page proposal, which Ms. Fortin says enjoys broad support from both Anglo and Francophone publishers ("The French and English are joined together and united on this"), states "in addition to facilitating a return to cultural diplomacy, [accepting] the invitation will give Canada a one-of-a-kind opportunity to tell its sophisticated, creative, multicultural and multilingual story on the international stage." It trumpets a "multi-million dollar potential return" on the $6.5-million budget and promises global exposure for Canadian authors. Among other objectives, the proposal includes having at least 100 Canadian publishing houses and authors attend the fair and facilitate the translation of at least 200 Canadian books into German, in hopes of selling foreign rights to German publishers. The proposal also pledges at least 400 cultural events throughout Germany in the months leading up to the fair, including "visual art exhibitions, dance performances, theatre shows, film screenings, immersive installations and even culinary tastings."

As guest of honour, Canada would receive almost 25,000 square feet of pavilion space, free of charge, although the budget allocates $1.5-million for design and construction. The total budget is $6.5-million, and the proposal requests $4,225,000 from Canadian Heritage, which represents 65 per cent of the total budget, with the remainder coming from a mix of public and private funding.

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"The Frankfurt Book Fair is an enormous enterprise, and the focus of a lot of people's attention, and a great place of commerce," says Matt Williams, president of the Association of Canadian Publishers and a vice-president at Toronto's House of Anansi Press. "If the intent of publishing something is to amplify it, holy smokes, this is a pretty big place to go out and amplify our work."

The proposal is currently being reviewed by the Department of Canadian Heritage, who now have until the end of March to decide whether or not to provide funding. Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly was not available for an interview, but, in an e-mailed statement, press secretary Pierre-Olivier Herbert wrote that "‎the promotion of arts and culture, in Canada and abroad, is a priority for the Minister of Canadian Heritage. Our authors are ambassadors of Canadian culture and we recognize the importance of providing them with the opportunity to share their work. Our government is committed to working closely with book publishers to support and contribute to the promotion of our culture. Canada's invitation to the Frankfurt Book Fair is currently under review. We are in discussions with Livres Canada Books and the Frankfurt Book Fair."

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About the Author
Books Editor

Mark Medley is the Globe and Mail’s Books Editor. Prior to joining the paper he spent more than seven years at the National Post, where he served as an arts reporter and books editor. More

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