All coverage of the official opening on February 20 of the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair focused on British author Ian McEwan's acceptance of the Jerusalem Book Prize, Israel's highest literary honor. The celebrated author had been besieged with demands that he boycott the prize and his trip to Jerusalem. "It will make him a collaborator with Israel's worst human rights offenders," was how the London newspaper The Guardian put it. McEwan told the standing room only crowd that "since accepting the invitation to Jerusalem, my time has not been peaceful."
McEwan noted that he was "somewhat overwhelmed at his award, considering that its "backlist is unequaled in the world." He named earlier winners such as Isaiah Berlin, Jorge Luis Borges and Simone de Beauvoir as writers who "have long been part of my own mental furniture." Nevertheless, he was very critical of Israel's "continued evictions and demolitions, and relentless purchases in East Jerusalem, the process of right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs." Noting that he was not "really interested in arguments of equivalence," he did state that Israel, "a valuable democracy is threatened by unfriendly neighbors, even to the point of extinction by a state that could possess a nuclear bomb." McEwan made several eloquent references to the novel "as the best, most sensitive means of exploring the freedom of the individual--and such exploration often depict what happens when that freedom is denied."
Other speakers at the opening ceremony included President Shimon Peres ("we consider us people of the book and now we are all people of Facebook") and Culture and Sport minister Limor Livnat. She used the occasion to announce a new annual translation fund of 500,000 shekels (about $140,000) to be used to translate at least 10 Hebrew books each year. She also talked about initiating legislation similar to laws passed in other countries that would regulate the pricing of new books in their first year on the market.
The coterie of 45 editorial and agent fellows from 17 countries at the fair understood her reference. Earlier that day they enjoyed an informative lecture from one of the fellows, Dror Mishani, an Israeli editor from Keter Books, one of the country's largest publishers. He talked about the last 100+ years of Hebrew literature. He also talked about extreme challenges of book distribution in the country for publishers and authors. Israel has two major chains--Steimatzky with about 150 stores and its competitor Tzomet Books with 80 stores and plans for 100 more in the next two years; there are very few independent stores and they are generally located in the major cities. A further complication is that two of the three owners of Tzomet are major Israeli publishers Kinneret Zmora Bitan and Modan (think Random House and Simon & Schuster owning Borders in its better days). The retailing situation has resulted, said Mishani, "in very unusual discounting." Sales of four books for 100 shekels or buy one and get two for free is part of the sales strategy of the chains. Publishers can choose not to allow books or some of their books to go into the discounting program, but that means that the books would sell for the usual list price of 90 shekels. Author royalties for the discounted books are also reduced. "You have to be an alchemist to make money," said Mishani.
The editorial agent fellows, about two dozen alumni fellows (the program started in 1985) and a few international literary agent/scouts make up the bulk of the international contingent at Jerusalem. A small number for most book fairs, but the right number for networking and talking books. Said Susanna Zevi, a literary agent based in Milan and a Jerusalem regular since 1989, "it is the best fair for personal connections with authors, publishers and agents from all over the world." Jean Mattern from Editions Gallimard, a 1999 alumnus, says he keeps in touch with many of the fellows he met during his year and has bought and sold many books over the years.
Zurich agent Eva Koralnik, also a fair regular, focused her first morning on a young Israeli novelist Nir Baram; his fourth book, Anashim Tovim (Good People) won a local award and was a bestseller this past fall. She featured him in her 2010 Frankfurt rights catalogue and by Jerusalem had sold rights in 14 countries, including Knopf in the U.S. Her next meeting was with agent fellow Gray Tan, proprietor of The Grayhawk Agency in Taiwan who was meeting with Baram to discuss publishing in China.
The literary Israeli agent is Deborah Harris whose eponymous agency represents Israeli, Palestinian and international authors in more than 30 countries. At past fairs, she did the impossible--put together programs that had Israeli and Arab authors (including Palestinians) on the same stage. At an official ceremony at City Hall Monday night, she was one of two winners of the coveted Friend of Jerusalem Award. The other winner was poet, author, publisher Michael Krueger of Hanser Verlag in Berlin, a fair aficionado and supporter for more than 30 years.
Harris's eloquent thank you summed up the feeling of so many that have come to JIBF. "It is through the fair that I have met some of the dearest friends of my life....It is more than a metaphor to say that the Jerusalem Book Fair is an essential, irreplaceable cultural and intellectual lifeline between Israel and the world and the world and Israel."