Monday 15 October 2018

Book Fair Post Mortem

Easing back into blogging, I thought I'd do a nice easy What Katy Did in Frankfurt post. Except of course nothing is easy these days, so it'll be a bit of a shit sandwich.

I skipped the book fair last year because I had had a tough time in my personal life and needed a rest. The contrast was all the more stark. Because exhibitor numbers are down, my international publishers were no longer miles away in Hall 8, necessitating long and hasty dashes to appointments, but relatively central in Hall 6. And because of global warming, the sun was shining. The effect, though, was a pleasant one: even though it's still a huge event, this time it felt more friendly and social. All six remaining halls are arranged around a central square dotted with pricey food trucks and odd constructions hosting extra events. So instead of walking between them along glassed-in walkways reminiscent of airport interiors, everyone headed outside and the "Agora" became a great place for coincidental meetings. Special thanks to Simone Buchholz here for the spontaneous ibuprofen/hug combination. But also to all the other people I ran into or met up with outside.

Number-one talk of the fair was the dearth of publishers' parties, followed as usual by the imminent death of the publishing industry. I still managed to go to two parties every night, though, so maybe things aren't drying up that fast... A friend who knows about the events industry tells me that sometimes, the money is actually there but the managers don't want to give the impression they're frittering it away. Sartorially, though, it was a disappointingly sombre affair, meaning I stood out like a sore thumb in my optimistic colours, especially at the parties. My advice: Dress for the publishing industry you want to be in, not for a Depeche Mode concert. Unless you want to be in aging goth publishing; in which case go ahead, you have my utmost respect.

On Friday night there were three levels of party insider status. Level one (and always my number-one Frankfurt party) was the German indies' party at the Literaturhaus, where anyone can attend for a small cover charge and drinks aren't free but cheap, with the dancing starting immediately after the awards ceremony (more on that below). Level two was the Dumont party, where you had to be on the invitation list and the drinks were free and everything was like it always is – crowded, dancefloor too packed for self-expression, much standing around and chatting to German publishing people – so much so that some people got confused about whose party it was, and possibly what year it was. It was there that I learned about insider level three, the Canongate party, for which you needed a paper invitation. There were, however, paper invitations to be had from relative strangers from KiWi Verlag, if you asked nicely. I got one and it proclaimed something like "This is the last party we will ever have. You must come or you will be sacrificed to the gods of netflix and amazon prime. It will go on until 5 in the morning so that you will make foolish decisions on Saturday." At around 3 AM, my brain so numbed by talking to publishing people for three days in a row that I barely remembered the existence of this blog, I decided it would be cooler to have had an invitation for the level-three publishing party but not actually attended. The logic being that getting more sleep would enable me to go and see a particular band in Berlin on Saturday, which would be eminently cooler than hanging out with yet more tipsy/tired publishing people. So I passed the slightly crumpled card along to a friend.

Here comes the shit part: Nazis. Last year there was a lot of stress around events organized by extreme right-wing publishers, featuring extremist writers and politicians and rightly eliciting protests. This year, the book fair placed all the dodgy publishers in one remote corner – except one of them pulled off a scam, pretending to wind up their press and then registering for a stand under a different name, claiming they'd be presenting books about freedom of speech. They ended up in the midst of left-leaning indies, rubbing their hands in delight. To be honest, that felt like the kind of elaborate and childish provocation my sister used to practice on me when we were eight and ten, so like most other people, I followed my mum's advice and ignored them.

But on Friday, the AfD's Björn Höcke was slated to promote his hate-filled book How I Will Whittle Down Germany's Population to Keep Only the Strong and the Blond (not actual title). This year the fair put him in a separate room and restricted access, blocking off escalators for much of an afternoon and calling in a significant police presence. Plain-clothes police officers threatened protesters and were generally more heavy-handed than one would expect at a publishing industry event – writer Sophie Sumburane was ejected from the premises for no explicable reason. Inside the promotion itself, a book fair representative ended up reassuring reporters that they were of course within their rights to record the proceedings, never mind what the organizers said, but television cameras were not allowed access. To be honest, the less airtime devoted to platforming Björn Höcke's hateful ideas the better, but the principle of excluding parts of the press is wrong.

If the book fair is serious about promoting human rights, it would do well to rethink hosting individuals known for propagating racism and belittling genocide. Things were better this year, I believe, with no reports of violence. But the book fair must be a safe place for all those who attend, and hosting Nazis makes it a dangerous place for many of us.

Back to the plus side: the blocked escalators meant I discovered the halal food outlet hidden away at the back of hall 4.0, which sold "Desi food like back home", including excellent samosas served up with cheeky quips. They'll be there next year too, so that and the supermarket outside hall 5 for affordable Coke Zero and emergency hosiery (if they don't demolish hall 5 as rumour has it) would be my top tips.

And now to my highlight, the olive on a cocktail stick pierced through the shit sandwich. The most delightful of all the delightful people to spend time with at the book fair were the people from Verbrecher Verlag. They never mince words – they'll let you know you if they think your idea is crap or if a book won't sell – so you can tell they really believe in what they do. They've begun championing bibliodiversity, changing their catalogue up from dude-heavy to a more balanced mix, with the women they publish selling more, it turns out, and garnering honours galore. Plus they're supportive and kind and funny. This year they were basically running around picking up prizes: Manja Präkels won the German YA Prize for Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirschen aß, a novel about growing up with neo-Nazis in rural East Germany. I met her and she was lovely and very funny and got me a free copy. Bettina Wilpert accepted the aspekte debut novel prize for Nichts, was uns passiert, about a rape and the devastating ripples it causes. At the Hotlist indies awards on Friday – where ten publishers all got a prize each, a room full of love and support with slightly too little ventilation – that same title also won the Melusine Huss Prize, voted on by independent booksellers. Seeing their excitement made me very happy.

I was too tired to make it to the gig on Saturday.

Monday 8 October 2018

#Frauenzählen now counting coverage

Thanks to the Institute for Media Research at the University of Rostock, we now have a reliable pilot study on book review coverage and gender in the German press, radio and TV. It's only available in German as yet – at frauenzä – but it is clear and will form a solid basis for future research. The study is similar to the VIDA count, except it's publicly funded and applies to a smaller market. The count was carried out in March of this year (a big month for spring book reviews).

I can't decide whether or not I'm surprised that the key figure maps neatly onto the stats on translations into English by gender: one third of review coverage goes to women, with men getting twice as much.

Men write more reviews than women, and most of the books they review were written by other men (74%). Women also review slightly more male-authored books than books by women, but they dedicate more column inches or air time to women's books when they do review them, so their coverage works out equal in the end. However, women critics get less space in the first place, compacting the problem. Only women's magazines give women's writing more coverage than men's.

In terms of genre, male and female-authored children's and YA books get equal coverage, while 70% of non-fiction reviews cover books by men. Crime writing reviews top the discrimination charts, with 76% dedicated to male-authored books. In the category the study calls "general Belletristik" – so probably fiction and literary non-fiction, the largest group garnering almost half the reviews – male authors pick up 61% of reviews.

Things will really get interesting in 2019, when the researchers will be able to add newly published books by author gender to the mix. We'll see then, I hope, what's going on inside publishing houses and whether women's writing is being ignored after publication or published less in the first place. Or both, perhaps. They might also have a chance to look at a range of intersectional factors, as VIDA has started doing, or at least think about gender in a less binary way.

The report is not exactly cheerful reading, but it's good that media editors can now calmly consider which books they cover and who they commission to review them. For improved finger-pointing purposes, it would be great to get breakdowns by publications – but with the state of play as it is, pretty much everybody's guilty anyway.  Have a great book fair!