The Jerusalem International Book Fair celebrated its jubilee year, opening up its 26th biennial event on February 10, and the first in 30 years without its charismatic and beloved chairman Zev Birger at its helm.
Birger died in July 2011, four months after the 25th JIBF. At the evening opening ceremony, Israeli President Shimon Peres heralded Birger, noting that he had turned the book fair into "Israel's intellectual visiting card." Key to the transformation of JIBF was the editorial fellowship program that he established in 1985, followed in 1991 by a parallel agent program. This year, there were 44 editors and agents from 19 countries in attendance, and about 25 alumna. And, the number of Jerusalem fellows/agent is approaching 500. This year, in Birger's honor, the program was renamed The Zev Birger Jerusalem Editorial & Agent Fellowship.
The big event at the opening ceremony is the presentation of the Jerusalem Prize, given to an author whose writing expresses tolerance and the freedom of the individual in society. The 2013 recipient was Spanish-born writer Antonio Munoz Molina who resisted the pressures urging him not to come to Jerusalem to accept the prize. At a later meeting with alumna fellows, he said there was "never a possibility of my not coming. I'm used to being a contrarian." His reluctance to step onto a public platform to deliver a speech had more to do, he noted, with the role of the writer. "At the end of the day, and stripped down to its bare bones, literature consists of someone who writes and someone who reads, the two of them dwelling in parallel solitudes, and at the same time connected to many others in an invisible network that may well spread out beyond boundaries of space and time."
On day one, keynote speaker Dame Gail Rebuck, CEO of Random House UK, spoke. She described her 33-year career and the various hats she wore--starting off as a production assistant, becoming an editor, an entrepreneur, a manager and finally a leader. Her main task, she said, is "balancing creativity and profitability." She also talked about "navigating the future," addressing the "seismic shifts" that underline publisher consolidation; bookstore attrition and their coping with being a "browsing showroom" for customers who then buy the book on electronic devices; and the myriad challenges of digital transition. She described the new publishing landscape--retailers turned publishers (Amazon); the rise of self-publishing; and daily new entrants to the marketplace, including ebook publishers with "low overheads, no legacy burdens and attractive business models." Her message to the fellows was also inspiring: "Books give meaning and a purpose to life, and they are the essence of our humanity, and I doubt that will change."
On the buzz panel, four editors took the opportunity, after Rebuck's address, to pitch their titles to the crowd. Tirza Biran Fried, a fellow in 2005 and editor at Am Oved, a Tel Aviv publisher, pitched Home Run at Ben Gurion Airport, a suspense novel published in 2011 to strong reviews. Job Lisman, an editor at Prometheus Publishers in the Netherlands, talked about Hamburgers In Paradise: Food In Times of Scarcity and Abundance by Louise O. Fresco. Deborah Kaufman, 2011 fellow and editor at Editions Calmann-Levy, believed her book, Whales Swim Naked by Eric Gethers, had international appeal. And Newmarket's Esther Margolis (covering for Will Murphy, whose flight out of the States was delayed because of weather), talked about two books: The Year by Hollywood reporter Anne Thomspon (which follows goings-on in Hollywood over the course of 2012), and Lincoln by Hal Holbrook (which is aimed at young readers). Israeli debut author and screenwriter, Mayan Rogel, described her book, We Could Have Left, as a "cool cancer read" published successfully by Carmel in Tel Aviv; the English translation is almost complete.
The Friend of Jerusalem Award, which is given to publishers and agents who have been frequent attendees of JIBF, was always the event that seemed to bring Zev Birger the most satisfaction. He would have approved of the 2013 awardees, Eva Cossee and Cristoph Buchwald, of Cossee Publishers in the Netherlands. Cossee was a 1993 fellow, while her husband was a 1995 fellow, and the duo has not missed a Jerusalem Fair since. Buchwald described his first meeting with Birger--he kept referring to him as "charm boy"--and talked about how he strong-armed the former chairman into writing his autobiography, No Time for Patience. He described Zev's "charming stubbornness and will to fight for every visitor from abroad." Buchwald invited the audience to be in communication with him so that he could share some "concrete" suggestions to help promote the fair. He finished his talk with a Lechaim (to life), for both Zev, and the crowd at City Hall.