The federal government is trying to postpone a long-awaited celebration of Canadian authors and artists at the world’s largest book fair in Germany this fall, after publishers, exhibitors and others began dropping out amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Department of Canadian Heritage is negotiating with the Frankfurt Book Fair to push back Canada’s role as this year’s guest of honour, which was to have been the centrepiece of a multimillion-dollar effort to export Canadian culture. In a normal year, the mid-October fair is a colossus, drawing about 280,000 attendees from around the world to buy and sell publishing rights, launch books, listen to author discussions and share industry intelligence. Dozens of Canadian authors were due to be in the spotlight during the five-day event.
Last week, the fair announced it would forge ahead despite the pandemic with a hybrid “special edition” combining in-person and virtual events, which is expected to have significantly less impact.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Canadian Heritage said the move prompted the department to scrap “major investments such as a construction of a Pavilion” for this year’s event.
Heritage had budgeted $13.5-million over five years for initiatives associated with the Frankfurt honour.
On Friday, another major publisher pulled out of the fair. A spokesperson for Penguin Random House told The Globe and Mail that it “greatly regrets it will neither exhibit at this year’s Fair, nor attend in person, to protect the health and well-being of our employees, authors and partners.” The company is owned by Bertelsmann, which is based in Guetersloh, Germany.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s just been years and years of hard work and dedication and commitment from so many levels of the industry and government," said Hazel Millar, the co-publisher of Toronto-based Book*hug Press, and the chair of the Literary Press Group of Canada, an industry association. But in order for those efforts to pay off, the guest of honour role "would need to be postponed. I understand how complicated that is, and perhaps unprecedented for the fair to sort out – but these are unprecedented times.”
Dozens of other initiatives pegged to the fair, including a creative industries trade mission to Berlin, Amsterdam and Stockholm that was set to take place last week, have also been abandoned.
More than 80 Canadian authors were expected to attend Frankfurter Buchmesse, as the fair is known, including Margaret Atwood, Michel Tremblay, Eden Robinson, Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore, Esi Edugyan, Kim Thuy and Tanya Talaga.
In its statement to The Globe, Heritage Canada said it “remain[ed] hopeful that our Guest of Honour participation will be postponed to 2021,” although it acknowledged it needs to cajole at least one of the three subsequent guest of honour countries – Spain, Slovenia and Italy – to rearrange their own plans.
Canada’s moment in the spotlight was to be the capstone to dozens of Canadian arts and culture events in Germany spanning dance, film, theatre, music, literature and a splashy exhibition of Canadian painting from 1910-40 at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt museum, many of which have now been cancelled or postponed. The Jazzahead international jazz trade fair and festival in Bremen, Germany at the end of April was to include a focus on Canada, with gala concerts by Rufus Wainwright and Tanya Tagaq.
But with the glad-handing nature of book fairs making them possibly deadly affairs in the age of COVID-19, the Frankfurt Book Fair is especially vulnerable.
“Trade fairs are big petri dishes, right?” said Sarah MacLachlan, the president and publisher of Toronto-based House of Anansi Press, which has pulled out of Frankfurt and does not expect to attend any fairs in person for the foreseeable future. “They’re halls filled with people from all over the world, and inevitably you go to them and you get sick. At the very least, you’re going to come home with a cold.”
(In fact, attendees often joke ruefully about returning from the fair with “the Frankfurt Flu.”)
“One of the great things about Frankfurt is what happens outside of the trade fair,” MacLachlan added. “You meet with other publishers for dinner or for drinks, or you go to a party – we’ve done deals at midnight or 3 o’clock in the morning – and that whole thing is just not going to be happening [this year]. So our opportunities are less, so why would we put any of our staff in danger?”
For many authors, reality is setting in. And a travel advisory remains in effect for Canadians.
“I’ve been watching the numbers in Germany, and seeing how they’re doing with the pandemic and wondering – is it possible [to go]?” Talaga said. “But still: We’d have to travel there, we have to go to a hotel, we have to do all these things that everyone is still very uncertain about.”
Talaga had been hoping her appearance at Frankfurt would help raise the profile of her second book, All Our Relations, which was published recently in the United Kingdom and Australia.
“In terms of exposure it would be fantastic,” she noted. “I think Germans love Indigenous issues, and there are quite a few of us who were going over who are Indigenous. So I guess there was great hope for our books.”
In its statement to The Globe, Heritage Canada said the Frankfurt initiative is “an important element” of the federal government’s $125-million, five-year Creative Export Strategy to “position Canada as a world leader in creative industries by making these industries a central part of our economy in the coming years.”
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