Thessaloniki Book Fair takes the first crucial steps of its existence

It sounded like fireworks. «Ah,» said Takis Theodoropoulos, interrupting his contribution to a round-table discussion on whether there is such a thing as a European culture, «I can hear the explosions from the opening ceremony.» The audience laughed. The opening of the Thessaloniki Book Fair was a shiny event attended by the city’s dignitaries and a clutch of ministers and deputies, but fireworks? Leaving the fate of European culture in abeyance, Kathimerini English Edition dutifully attended the ceremony. Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis, Education Minister Marietta Giannakou, EKEBI President Dimitris Nollas, Deputy Mayor Haralambos Aidonopoulos and Culture Ministry General Secretary Christos Zachopoulos cut ribbons, greeted the visitors and emphasized the importance of the fair for the city. But there were no explosions to be seen, either there or later at a sumptuous buffet offered by sponsor Aget-Iraklis. The fuss – and there was one – took place outside the fair, where a small group of students demonstrating against Education Ministry policies met a larger and more determined contingent of the riot squad, MAT. No heads were broken on other side, the students dispersed and the fair continued as smoothly as it had begun. Positive feedback Unusually for a Greek event, there was a convergence of opinions, all positive, about the success of the venture. Publishers, writers, agents and journalists agreed in their praise, especially since this was the first full-scale international book fair of its kind in Greece. With 150 publishers from 18 countries participating, and strong support from the ordinary public, the fair took its first vital step. The next step is to create a unique niche that will firmly establish Thessaloniki as an event on the international book calendar. And that is where the experience of others is instructive. Some foreign publishers offered helpful suggestions about where the TBF might go from here, gleaned from their own long experience of attending international fairs. Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia Press in the UK has a strong foreign list that includes Greek writers Pavlos Matessis and Alexis Stamatis. «The fair needs to be themed,» said Pulsifer. «If it’s going to grow, it needs a distinctive flavor – not for the ordinary public, but for the international book people. There has to be a reason for them to come.» He suggested emphasizing the Balkan connection: «It could be the Balkan fair, like Gothenburg in Sweden, which is the Nordic fair. Everybody goes there to buy Nordic rights.» That takes time, of course. In the meantime, the modest size of the fair can be a boon to busy publishers and scouts, as Pulsifer explained. «In Frankfurt and London you have 40-50 appointments; you don’t have time to focus, and it takes such a long time to get to know the literature of a country.» Pulsifer was delighted with the seminar (see sidebar) run directly after the fair at Porto Carras, for offering that opportunity. He suggested more collective stands and star authors to pull in crowds as ways of expanding the fair in the future. Simon Smith of Peter Owen, another British publisher, also emphasized the need for collective stands. «Small foreign firms can’t afford to attend every fair,» he told Kathimerini. «It’s important to seek out partnerships.» As he explained, the British Arts Council has a small budget but it is interested in co-funding. Smith advised his Greek counterparts to explore the possibility of co-funding translations of Greek books in order to get into the British market. He too suggested star authors as an attraction, as did Paul Johnston, an Athens-based British writer who led creative writing workshops sponsored by the British Council at the fair. Originally attended as a one-day event, it was so oversubscribed that it was extended to an additional day. Praising the organization of the fair and noting that it was well-attended by literary agents and scouts, translator David Connolly favored emphasizing the Balkan flavor to give the fair direction, character and a sense of continuity. He was keen on the idea of big names and events «that would add some glamour.» Like everyone else Kathimerini English Edition talked to, he pointed out that it takes time to build up the fair. This is where Pulsifer’s recollections of the now massive London Fair – soon relocating to larger premises in the Docklands – are encouraging: «I can remember the early days,» he said, «when the London Fair was so small it practically fitted into a hotel lobby.» It was not just the business side of the fair that impressed. The discussions and author presentations were so popular that even though many of them were run in tandem, it was frequently standing-room only. Fans of author Ziranna Zatelli willingly lined up an hour in advance to hear their idol speak. Exhibitions of art books, Ex Libris art and woodcuts, parallel events – including a series of films based on books and meetings with directors – made the fair an overall cultural experience. Outstanding activities for children, running throughout the fair, will be the subject of a later article. It was a good beginning and a tribute to the efforts of Greek National Book Center Director Catherine Velissaris and her team of assistants, Thessaloniki Municipality, Helexpo, the Panhellenic Federation of Publishers and Booksellers, and Thessaloniki University, under the aegis of the Culture Ministry.

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