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Jan 14, 2018
Shortcuts to the World
Clare Chi

I spent the first half of November 10th, the second day of the Frankfurt Book Fair, amid an energetic flurry of meetings, and hustled my way from the day’s work into the evening event: a meet-up for attendees of the 2017 Zev Birger Fellowship, held five months before. A ten-minute trek got me to Joe Pena’s, which was already full of faces now familiar to my eye – fellow editors from England, Turkey, Brazil, Italy, Holland, and Austria, whose individual arrivals each elicited a cheer from those already there. I looked at the packed bar, and remarked to a friend, a rights manager from Hanser: “I feel like I’m back in Jerusalem, but now everyone’s dressed nicer.” She laughed and nodded in agreement. One absentminded joke took me back to scenes of that summer.

 

At 4:00 a.m. on June 9th, my plane touched down in Tel Aviv. I made my way through early morning darkness to the cab stand, and set off for Jerusalem. Arriving at the hotel an hour later, I found two other early birds: a rights manager from Suhrkamp and an editor from Ullstein. Early check-in was not an option, it turned out; and while the manager explained at length that we were perfectly welcome to wait in the lobby and use the wifi, we decided that a long walk in search of food might suit us better. So we set off towards the old city, and my Jerusalem experience officially began in those quiet morning hours.

 

That evening’s welcome party featured introductions by all thirty-seven participating editors, rights managers, agents, and scouts, who came from over twenty countries. At one point, an editor from the Brazilian house Intrinseca mentioned offhandedly that his house published 50 Shades of Grey. The announcement set off a chain reaction, and we began to connect with and discover each other on the basis of our relationship to a single book.

 

In those initial days, we toured the fortress of Masada, braving the intense summer heat as we learned how a Judaic community resisted the Romans down to the last man, woman, and child; we visited the Holocaust Museum, and were brought back to one of the bloodiest chapters in human history; were taken around Kinneret, Israel’s largest publisher and media giant Yediot on a tour of their historical development that brought us back in time to see the Israeli publishing world through the eyes of a local. In Mahane Yehuda Market, we stuffed ourselves on local food, gazed at the multicolored spices, and came away with gifts of all kinds. We sat in the Thai restaurant by the event locale, and discussed Hygge, Lagom, Sisu, and the recent fervor for the Scandinavian spirit, while an editor Garzanti (Italy) tried to find words in Italian that best represented the soul of Italian culture. By the seaside in Tel Aviv, we splashed in the water and talked about the difficulties of learning foreign languages. Every day of that short week, we found ourselves more and more excited to spend time with each other.

 

While long rides and long waits are an inevitable part of touring with large groups, those mundane moments were actually opportunities for rich communication. The group dynamic stimulated everyone’s curiosity, and questions for our international colleagues were endless; everyone wanted to know about the others’ takes on best-selling literature, book fairs, audio books, e-books, fixed-price laws, reading habits, the troubles of being an agent, and even the weird habits of their bosses. My deepest impression came from a conversation I had with a fellow participant from the Indian publisher Kerala (who had also attended the 2005 Frankfurt Fellowship) at the awards ceremony for the Jerusalem Prize. I asked him what his most valuable takeaway from the fellowship experience had been, to which he instantly responded, “acquiring rights,” and described in moving detail the troubles and excitements inherent in the process.

 

The magic of the publishing industry – and the greatest quality of its members – lies in the ability of a single book to bring thirty-seven strangers into animated conversation. The total absence of competitive relations meant we were free to share publishing plans and recommend books we thought suited the other’s market. A Turkish editor told me that Pretty Little Mistakes had done so well in Turkey that the author had written a second sequel exclusively for the Turkish market. She, the editor, was desperate to find an equivalent title for children, but had had no luck. I enthusiastically recommended to her the Icelandic title Your Very Own Nordic Mythology, published by Forlagid, as a perfect match for her, and gave her the publisher’s contact information. Book fairs brought us together, and books connected us to each other, forming bonds that run further and deeper than we know, and allowing us to spend a week like college students in a foreign land. This ineffable emotion is, to me, the deepest source of value there is.

 

It seems the bond won’t be effaced by the passing of time, I thought, as we all took a group picture by the bar at Joe Pena’s. I walked up to the Turkish editor and asked her if she’d looked into the Icelandic title; when she told me that the contract was already being negotiated, I found that news of her success made me happier than selling one of my own books.

 

The end of our party marked the halfway point of the Frankfurt Book Fair; the next time I saw them was Friday, as book fair attendees went out to celebrate the closing of the event. A colleague and I decided to stop into the Frankfurter Hof for a drink, and we had no sooner got in the door than another Jerusalem fellow, the editor-in-chief of the Serbian publisher Agora, met me at the door with a smile. We congratulated each other on having successfully come through another book fair, and talked about which fellowships we might be applying to next. Every ending, I thought to myself, is itself another beautiful beginning.

 

They say that to learn another language is to see another world. After the Jerusalem Fellowship, I felt that to meet another person is to step directly into another nation’s publishing industry, and to establish a new channel of communication.