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Held every October, the Frankfurter Buchmesse is the world’s largest book fair, and bills itself as the most important trade fair for publishing.Marc Jacquemin /Frankfurt Book Fair

For four years, Canada’s publishing industry had been working toward its moment in the spotlight in 2020.

Held every October, the Frankfurter Buchmesse is the world’s largest, and bills itself as the most important trade fair for publishing – the 2019 event attracted more than 300,000 people. Here, deals are made, international and translation rights are sold, business relationships are formed and, in the final days, the public swarms in – sometimes in literary cosplay getups – for author panels and book signings.

Each year, one country is designated the Guest of Honour, with a pavilion devoted to its culture – books and more. October, 2020, was to be Canada’s turn.

Organizers of what was then called the Canadian Frankfurt Book Market 2020 had announced a delegation for the pavilion of dozens of authors and illustrators, among them Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan, Eden Robinson and Michel Tremblay. Atwood was there for the closing ceremony in 2019 when that year’s guest of honour, Norway, handed over the torch (actually a ceremonial scroll).

When COVID-19 hit, Canada managed to negotiate a deferral to 2021, but it wasn’t easy; there was a domino effect for other countries. With vaccines on the market and case counts dropping, plans went ahead for FBM2021. And then, plot twist: the Delta variant.

Deferring to 2022 is not an option, according to Canada’s organizing committee. “To get to this year was quite an exercise in diplomacy,” says Gillian Fizet, executive director of Canada FBM2021. Now Fizet and her team are planning for a hybrid, primarily virtual event; content is currently being created for both the physical pavilion and online. At this point, it’s unclear if any Canadian authors will be able to travel there.

“If there’s an in-person presence, it’s like the cherry on the sundae,” says Jennifer-Ann Weir, Canada FBM2021 associate executive director.

She points out the exposure from the guest-of-honour role has already paid off, from a business perspective. To date, her team has recorded that nearly 350 Canadian books have been translated and are available for sale in German stores or have been (or will be) published in 2020 and 2021. That far surpasses the initial goal of 200 (and is much higher than the typical Canadian average about 60 publications a year).

The outcome includes German-language translations of books by authors including Kim Thuy, Waubgeshig Rice, Ivan Coyote, Paul Seesequasis, Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey – all members of the previously announced delegation.

And for the first time in the history of the fair, Weir says, there will be a virtual guest-of-honour pavilion.

“When life gives you lemons, you do lemonade,” she says. “It’s more like we invented a whole new drink, but we don’t know what it’s going to end up being.”

The possibility of any in-person author attendance is still being evaluated by the Department of Canadian Heritage, with more details and decisions expected in September. “In the meantime, and due to the continued non-essential travel directives as set out by the Government of Canada, the focus remains on showcasing Canadian authors and illustrators in a virtual format,” a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage told The Globe and Mail.

Two of Canada’s major publishing houses have decided not to send staff to attend the fair in person because of the pandemic.

“It is a shame to miss the Frankfurt Book Fair two years in a row, especially since Canada is to be the Guest of Honour,” HarperCollins publisher and senior vice-president Iris Tupholme said in a statement to The Globe. Instead of in-person meetings, work will be done virtually.

Penguin Random House Canada will also attend the fair virtually, “in an effort to keep all of our colleagues safe,” said vice-president, marketing and communications, Beth Lockley, in a statement. “We’re grateful to the Canada FBM2021 for creating a hybrid format with virtual programming, performances, and initiatives that put Canadian talent on full display with less risk.”

While the fair is scheduled to go ahead with reduced in-person attendance, those still planning to go know things could change. And that even if they do make it there, it will not be business as usual.

“With the programming really scaled back, it’s unfortunate timing,” says Semareh Al-Hillal, president of House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books. Al-Hillal is planning to attend, along with one other staff member – a smaller delegation than usual. “Frankfurt is so important for us … that we felt in this instance, pandemic willing, that at least two of us should attend.” Plans, though are not firm, and will depend on how things go in the next few weeks.

Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, is also planning to attend, as are some, but by no means all, of her members. Still, everything is tentative. Some companies have booked space at the fair, but still might pull the plug.

“I think everyone has come to realize the decision to get on the plane may only be made closer to October,” Edwards says.

Setting aside the in-person component for the actual fair, Edwards points out that a lot of positives have come out of the project: all of those translation deals, plus what she imagines will “definitely be a strong virtual component this fall, regardless of what happens in person or not.” She says the experience has opened doors that will benefit the Canadian industry long after this year.

“If the pandemic had not happened, the book fair in 2020 would have been, yes, five days of wonderful showcases and great exposure for Canada’s publishing industry and writers and illustrators. But all of the preparation to get to those five days – the legacy is going to extend far into the future.”

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