My first international exhibition since joining the Books from Taiwan (BFT) team last January was the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in April. As everyone in our industry knows, this event is a must-go for children’s book authors and illustrators worldwide. I myself had been before, serving in other roles, but to come back now after years away and in a new position seemed akin to making a fresh start. This time, I had a new identity, new responsibilities, a new perspective, and new impressions.
No longer was I just another rights associate of some publishing company, arriving with only my own booklist and an eye for foreign prospects. Instead, I now served as a “government sponsored rights manager,” acting under the auspices of the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture. My business now included every original Taiwanese work, author, and publisher; my responsibility was the advocate for each and every one, and help them find ideal international collaborators.
At nine a.m. on the first morning of the Fair, I made my way to the Taiwan pavilion, arranged my copies of BFT under the smiling face of the “Little Beauty of Taiwan,” and set up my meeting table. It was the first time I didn’t need to spend the day running from booth to booth, and could therefore observe our pavilion personally, and with care.
Taiwan Stand and BFT
Curious to know what kinds of people would gravitate to our pavilion, I played the part of impromptu receptionist for a few hours that morning. The first visitors to flip through BFT were purchasing librarians from the Bologna municipal library; later, I met publishers and booksellers from all the world (a South African publisher greeted me with: “I want sexy books! Give me something sexy!”), along with young illustrators offering their work to editors for perusal. People came to us with a diverse array of hopes and expectations, and as employees, we were responsible for engaging seriously with each. Every so often, we would enter into a round of on-site book interviews and real negotiation. In a high-stress, easily changeable atmosphere like the Fair, such occurrences came as a welcome surprise.
What can a “government sponsored rights manager” do? In my spare time at the Fair (something I never had before), I poked around the exhibition floor, looking for an answer to that question. I visited the pavilions of the Czech Republic, Holland, Russia, Turkey, Croatia, Scandinavia, Cataluña, and other countries, noting how they presented themselves to the world, lowered the barriers to rights exchange, and inspired interest. Conversations with my colleagues from around the world gradually revealed that my target partners included not only editors and rights associates all over the world, but also authors, translators, the critical community, and representatives from government and non-profit foundations. I needed to plant seeds of interest all over the world, and care for them until “points” turned into “lines,” then into “areas.” This new work represented both a challenge and a source of great interest.
I also had a chance to visit the Illustrators Exhibition 2016, which included this year’s special exhibition, a showcase of classic illustrations celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Book Fair. I found myself revisiting my first impulses to work in the children’s book industry, and pondering Taiwan’s place among the vast landscape of seemingly borderless works of art.
Books from Taiwan has just begun its work. Before we started, we believed that our pictorial language would allow our work to step beyond cultural boundaries more easily; only our experiences on the exhibition floor revealed the opposite to be true. Like a child with a new jigsaw puzzle, we are beginning at square one. Only practical experience will teach us how to fit those pieces, slowly but surely, into one grand picture.