My whole life, I’ve always been someone who knew how to express my feelings, and who enjoyed sharing the details of my life with others. Yet the experiences I gained during the Frankfurt Fellowship consistently refused to be put into words. When asked, I could only describe them piecemeal, while my heart felt like an overfilled balloon, swollen to near the bursting point yet with no outlet available. Of course, I understood why: there were too many memories to recall, too many things to say, too many emotions to express all at once. So many fascinating stories were fighting to be told at once, they overwhelmed my ability to tell them.
Let me begin, then, with a story about self-expression. On the second day of the fellowship, each attending member was asked to give a short introductory report on the state of the publishing world in their own country, which they would follow by answering questions from listeners. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal: I talk about Taiwan’s geography and culture, then describe the biggest challenges we face in this ever-declining book market. Piece of cake, right? Ah, but don’t forget: the report had to be delivered in English! For a Chinese speaker like myself, who gets nervous just reading English aloud, this was serious challenge. As the penultimate speaker, I felt my stomach twist in a rising anxiety as I watched the preceding speakers’ easy demeanor, but when my time came, there was nothing to do but head boldly onto the stage, written draft in hand, and pretend like the audience members were stones. Luckily, the most nervous moments passed quickly, and my fifteen minutes almost felt inadequate in the end; the crowd looked interested in my report, and even asked specific questions about our bookselling platform. Looking back, I’m glad to see that I overcame the language obstacle, and I think my stage presence improved significantly.
Another important takeaway from the project was a fascinating conversation I had with the managing directors of Hugendubel. I remember, it was an early morning event, and leadoff reports on the bookstore’s history and market activity had the audience sipping on coffee to stay awake. Soon, however, the presenters passed around something that quickly caught our attention: a few new models of the new Tolino, an e-reader similar to a Kindle. The Tolino, which has already moved into its third generation, is spreading in popularity throughout Europe. What surprised me is that it employs a bookstore-oriented sales model; every member store has employees specializing in e-reader customer service who stand ready to help customers with any Tolino-related question. Now that Germany has officially standardized all book prices, customers no longer need to run around comparison shopping; they can patronize the bookstore of their choice, and enjoy superior e-reader service in the meantime. I was impressed by the extent to which this business model has upended traditional habits of consumption; and as someone who is always careful about the businesses I support, I hope Taiwan can establish a similar service as soon as possible.
The greatest benefit of the trip, however, was none other than the experience of meeting my fifteen colleagues. These wonderful people brought me closer to the rest of the world; meeting them transformed news reports from far-off countries from digital information into real stories affecting real people. Though we came from different places, we shared the same intense enthusiasm for publishing, and displayed the same flexibility and resilience our trade requires. During the trip we took care of each other and listened to each other’s stories, and by the end, we were inseparable. Even now, back in our home countries, we continue to stay in touch and share our experiences with each other. It is a connection I hope will endure for the rest of our lives.
Even at this fairly young age, I can confidently aver that this year’s fellowship will remain for me an unforgettable event. In two short weeks, fifteen editors, distributors and rights agents from around the world visited three German cities (Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt); visited ten publishing houses (including the headquarters of Random House); spoke to publishers and agents, and ran all over the Frankfurt Book Fair, listening to presentations and attending dinners. The fullness of the experience truly surpassed my wildest dreams.