Formulating a national book policy

In a recent interview, Christos Lazos mentioned four areas in which the National Book Center (EKEBI) was active during his four years as its director. These were: – Promoting Greek books abroad with the help of the European Translation Center (EKEMEL), the English-language magazine Ithaca, as well as participating in international events; – Promoting books in Greece through activities such as reading relays and anniversary celebrations; – Making studies of the book market; – Participating in the formulation of a European book policy. He also mentioned areas where he considered the organization’s action was not completely successful, such as the use of new technologies by Biblionet and embarking on joint initiatives with Greek publishers. Nine years since EKEBI was founded, and four years since the outgoing administration took up its duties, the following question is as pressing as it was when EKEBI first went into operation. What exactly is a policy of intervention in the field of culture and more particularly in the book sector? The working committee that came up with the idea of establishing EKEBI 10 years ago believed it was obvious that such an organization should help the book sector acquire a true picture of itself. They believed it should work at the infrastructure level, helping those involved in the sector – publishers’ associations, writers, individual firms, periodicals and Culture Ministry (YPPO) services – to gather the necessary information so as to decide what kind of action was needed (as reported in «National Book Policy,» YPPO, 1994). It was also apparent that, due to a complete dearth of experience, the policies EKEBI implemented would themselves become the subject of study so that the sector could acquire the necessary indicators and tools for monitoring the market. Policy means action. The peculiarity of EKEBI, the reason that justified its birth alongside jointly responsible YPPO offices, was its obligation – in addition to taking action – to examine its own results and draw conclusions. As time passed, EKEBI gained what was by Greek standards unprecedented funding, premises, numerous employees with expertise and a history of dozens of actions. Are we now in a position to evaluate what has been done, to understand better the identity of the Greek book and what actions it needs? Only in part. There have been many obstacles over the years. It is indeed difficult to formulate policy when YPPO, which had provided lavish funds for the Frankfurt Book Fair [in 2001, when Greece was the guest of honor], suddenly turns its back, cutting off scheduled funding without reason. It is difficult to formulate policy when the one of the main players – the publishers – have a narrow perception of problems, based on their own interests. It is difficult to formulate policy when someone who is as crucial to the book sector as Costas Voukelatos [publisher of the statistical magazine Ichneftis] constantly fulminates against EKEBI, accusing it of squandering public money, and when sued for libel, asked EKEBI for all the evidence needed to defend his case. However, these difficulties were not EKEBI’s main problem. How did they prevent it from drawing up full, evaluative reports on the policies it has systematically followed? What were the results of the Frankfurt Book Fair and what benefits have stemmed from the costly business of having Greek publishers and writers participate in book fairs, congresses and lectures abroad? What sort of reception has Ithaca had? What has EKEMEL achieved? What has become of Biblionet’s database? What were the results of the reading relay? Was it better to organize conferences, symposia and tributes to Seferis, Embeirikos and Palamas, in addition to numerous literary events, rather than to continue primary research (into readers’ behavior, illiteracy and bookstores) that had been conducted in the first five-year term but stopped in the second? (EKEBI’s recent study «The Economics of the Books in Greece» is very useful, except for the fact that the Biblionet source is based on secondary processing of statistics that have been collected by other people.) Lastly, why could parliamentary elections, held as scheduled, prevent EKEBI from making a substantive evaluation of its work over four years, thus downgrading its achievements and lending weight to the subsequent outburst against it? The ongoing problem that is apparent today, as with the previous four-year term under the directorship of Myrsini Zorba, is a shortcoming that plagues most Greek institutions – the lack of a comprehensive notion of what they do and why they do it. Even if directors do possess such a notion, they take it with them when they leave, without sharing it with others in the field and making it part of any collective experience.