Canada’s Guest of Honour time finally comes

Canada’s Guest of Honour time finally comes

There has been a private joke among the team at Canada FBM2020—the organisation charged with representing the country’s publishing industry for its Frankfurt Book Fair Guest of Honour stint—that its social media hashtag should be #ForeverFrankfurt. 

If not forever, Canada’s time in the Buchmesse sun has been very long indeed, or at least longer than any other FBF guest. Canada’s scheduled 2020 slot was, of course, extended to 2021, with its participation last year limited by the pandemic to virtual events. And though there will be a Canada pavilion and a number of events “IRL” at this FBF—in addition to a raft of online and hybrid physical/digital sessions—this is hardly how organisers envisioned their time in the spotlight when they first inked the deal to be the Guest of Honour back in 2016. 

The drawnout feeling is perhaps exacerbated by the last 19 months of almost everyday unpredictability, says Gillian Fizet pictured right, Canada FBM2020 executive director. She explains: “At the beginning of 2020 we had our pavilion concept ready, everything was ready to go. Then at the start of the pandemic there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen at the 2020 fair, then there was uncertainty for about six to eight months where we didn’t even know if we’d be postponed to 2021. So essentially, what we have been doing for the last year and a half is conceiving different contingency plans. Forget about Plan B, I think we’re on Plan F by now. It might still change every day and I think it will be a case of altering and adjusting right up to the very last minute.”

While Fizet’s responsibilities are for the overall direction of Canada FBM2020, she particularly concentrates on helping Canadian publishers use the Guest of Honour to sell rights (before taking on her current role, Fizet was rights director at Canada’s biggest independent publisher, House of Anansi/Groundwood Books). Meanwhile, the primary remit of Canada FBM2020 associate executive director Jennifer-Ann Weir (pictured below) is directing what will happen on the ground at Frankfurt, from the look of the pavilion to the literary events, so she has been at the particularly sharp end of that changeability. For example, Canada FBM2020 could not just roll out the pavilion it had designed before the pandemic. Weir says: “We had to completely reimagine it because what we first had was a really immersive, ‘up close’ experience, using a lot of virtual reality. It was very tactile, which of course is a no-no right now, so we had to go back to the drawing board, putting Covid safety measures in place.”

Weir also notes that the big challenge will be the literary programme. “After two years, people are a little tired of Zoom and virtual events. And the real difficulty is to try to match what is probably the best thing about real-life author talks: the audience coming together and talking about the ideas even after the event. What we will be doing on the ground at Frankfurt will be creating an intimate relationship with our literary and cultural content by virtual and interactive means.” 

Happily, it will not be just virtual. Canada FBM2020 released its programme on 28th September and of the 58 authors that will participate in its events, seven will be at the Messe. 

Changing places
Even if there had not been a pandemic, bringing a Canadian Guest of Honour to FBF would have been quite a feat of logistics. It is, of course, a very large country and while a good portion of the publishing industry is in Toronto and Montreal, there are significant players in almost every major city. Indeed, some publishers are in rather far-flung locales, including the biggest Inuit-owned firm, Inhabit Media, which has its headquarters in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic. (Average daily temperature in January: –27°C). Plus, there are the languages, not just the official English and French but 90 different living indigenous languages. It might be a surprising statistic to those outside the country, but more Canadians speak indigenous languages in the home (22%) than French (21%). 

So there is a vast, widespread book trade, with a number of different agendas and perspectives. Weir says: “We have so many cultures, so many languages. That’s what makes Canadian literature very rich. But the challenge is how you show all that uniqueness, creativity, diversity and complexity in a literary programme.” 

While the five days of FBF are the main event, in many ways the real work of a Guest of Honour stint is the other 51 weeks in the year, as it generally is more or less a Germany-wide, 12-month, rolling literary festival. Though Canada FBM2020 has found ways of working around the Covid restrictions to showcase writers, this lack of in-real-life promotion might be where Canadian authors will feel the hit as, of course, international travel was prohibited for much of the last two years. In fact, it was only last month that the first in-person Canada FBM2020 author event was held, with a Berlin workshop by the picture book author/illustrator Guillaume Perreault. 

Still, the extra year had some benefits. Rights trading is the backbone of a Guest of Honour: using the platform to showcase works to the broader international publishing community, but also into Germany in particular, which is boosted by a German translation programme. Fizet says: “We had a target of 200 rights sales in 2020 into Germany, which we hit even before the fair last year was held. That number is now up to 350—and that is not even including the rights sold before 2020. So that is quite significant and certainly the [extra time during] the pandemic contributed a bit to that augmentation. But I honestly think there was such goodwill from the German publishing industry, from the very beginning, about Canada being Guest of Honour. We felt supported and encouraged before the pandemic.” 

Fizet says the Canada FBM2020 entity “will sunset” in March next year “and it’s been a long sunset, let me tell you. I was the first employee and I have been here a year longer than I had planned, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have been part of this project, which obviously had obstacles and challenges. The team was talking about this the other day but this project—because of those challenges—has been so intense and while we haven’t been overwhelmed, I think it totally consumed us.”