Comedian Groucho Marx once said that he didn't want "to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." No one who is part of the Jerusalem International Book Fair's special club—the Editorial & Agent Fellowship Program—would ever say that. At the 22nd Jerusalem Book Fair, held February 13—18, it was clear that this program is what gives this biennial event its high placement among the international book scene's meet-and-greet opportunities. Since the first program, 20 years ago, there have been 280 editorial fellows from 30 countries; the agent fellows program began in 2001 and has hosted 33 agents from eight countries.
The 2005 contingent was the largest ever: 35 editors from 15 countries and 13 agents from seven countries. They were joined at the fair by more than 15 alumni fellows and about 35 editors, agents and scouts from abroad who regularly attend this fair. A contingent of a mere 100 foreign attendees at a Frankfurt, London or BEA would be a ridiculous figure, but it's enough to make the Jerusalem fair a key venue in the international marketplace.
While many successful rights deals are negotiated in Jerusalem, the event's raison d'être is to introduce the Israeli publishing scene and its writers to the international community. As usual, considerable discussion time was given over to publishing issues faced by all, no matter what country is called home. "I have been to London, Frankfurt and BEA, and the Jerusalem fair is much smaller and less frenetic," said Helen Garnons-Williams, a fellow from Orion Books in London. While she noted that "it was good to have less hectic, more intimate meetings with agents and editors," she admitted that more attendees would have produced more business.
Still, all of the fellows agreed that the fair provides an exceptional opportunity to get to know their colleagues. Adam Freudenheim from Penguin U.K. noted, "It was invaluable—an instant network of colleagues from around the world." Helga Resch, editor at Germany's Kiepenhauer & Witsch, liked the less hectic Jerusalem fair: "You find the time to talk to people; everyone is more open and the atmosphere really invites discussion."
The venues for these exchanges are both spectacular and meaningful, enhanced by special sightseeing trips that broaden the attendees' understanding of the conflicts integral to Jerusalem's history. The first-day excursion—visiting the Dead Sea and climbing Masada—broke down the barriers. Two additional tours took the fellows to the ancient walled city of Jerusalem and to the country's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.
Like their predecessors, this year's fellows praised the tours. Oxford University Press editor Dedi Felman was particularly eloquent: "Jerusalem is an awe-inspiring city to walk or drive around. It offers unique vantage points on the passions currently renting the fabric of modern life. As one of our guides put it, when you have a mosque built on top of a church which is built on top of a temple, you have a great visual of the exceptional vertical real estate battle inspiring the never-ending clashes of East and West in this city. And you understand why the problem is so difficult to solve." London agent Judith Murray of Greene & Heaton was impressed with Jerusalem's "sense of history, the sense of it being a debatable city in every way, with most cultures and religions laying claim to it at various times since its establishment."
At JIBF, there are two types of programming: for the Israeli public and for the international contingent. The former is aimed at bringing in as many people as possible to buy books at the stands of Israeli and international publishers. The latter group is represented by the country's major retailer, Steimatzky, and by Academon, which has bookshops on Israel's university campuses. Sales were way ahead of the 2003 fair, with many exhibitors reporting stronger sales for day one than for the entire event last time. Two years ago, traffic was down by more than a third—not only because of the intifada but also because many Israeli publishers did not participate—that fair came right after Hebrew Book Week, during which publishers and distributors set up kiosks throughout the country selling books at huge discounts.
There were several firsts this year on the fellows' agenda, including a Journalists Forum with reporters who cover the Middle East, and an International Buzz Forum. The most dramatic first, however, was an all-day event organized by Israeli literary agent Deborah Harris aimed at giving fair attendees a chance to hear and meet more Arab authors (see sidebar). All three events were open to the public; each attracted huge crowds. While editors and agents enjoyed all three, many noted that they would have preferred more debate among the panelists and more exchange between panelists and audience. Kathrin Scheel, an editor at Germany's Schoeffling & Co., summed it up best: "More talk, more interaction, less statement-oriented." At the buzz panel, attendees' eagerness to learn more about books being published outside their native countries was evident—many times they called out for spellings of the authors' names.
The books talked about were nothing if not eclectic. Though Simon Prosser, publishing director of Hamish Hamilton & Penguin Books, squeezed in three books in his allotted time, he concentrated on a June book, Quicksand. Prosser described its author, 93-year-old Sybille Bedford, as the "last of the great Bohemians" and her book as a very personal memoir of the 20th century.
French publisher Heloise D'Ormesson, who recently launched her eponymous company, talked about Finnish author Arto Paasilinna and French writer Pierre Pelot, each of whom has written more than 30 novels. "Both have a lot in common," said D'Ormesson, "but they are not widely translated because they don't want to travel or promote their books and they live in remote villages." She emphasized that the authors' sensibilities and characters are universal and said that their works "deal with lonesome, desperate characters but with a lot of humor."
Shimon Adaf, literary editor of Keter (and Amos Oz's editor), talked about a very successful debut novel, End's World by Ofit Touche Gafla. Adaf described the book—which centers around a man who makes his living providing writers with endings for their works—as a combination of science fiction, dark thriller, comedy and romance.
Judy Clain, senior editor at Little, Brown, chose a fall 2005 title, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, One Apartment Kitchen? How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, Her Cat's Well-Being and Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living by Julie Powell. It's the author's memoir of a year spent cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The author's blog on how the experience saved her soul drew thousands of readers and she has been the subject of feature articles in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Movie rights were sold to Columbia Pictures.
Michael Krueger, publisher of the German house Hanser, pitched three books, including The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami, which he published last August. Damascus-born Schami has lived in Germany for almost 35 years and his novels have been translated into 21 languages and received numerous awards. This book, Krueger explained, "tells the story of a forbidden love that spans nearly a century of Syrian history."
A popular program for the fellows has always been the alumni lecture series, with a former fellow launching a discussion on shared concerns about the book business. This year, 1985 fellow Andrew Franklin, publisher of London's Profile Books, spoke about "Why Bother: Publishing in a Time of Change." A discussion among the fellows followed, moderated by Newmarket publisher Esther Margolis, founder of the Editorial Fellows program. Franklin, the original publisher of the international bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves, was the most visible of all the editors at this fair. In addition to the Wednesday morning lecture, he moderated a panel discussion with his Arabic author Raja Shehadeh on Tuesday evening, and was one of two editors to receive the Jerusalem Friend Award on Thursday (the other was Anne-Solange Noble of Editions Gallimard in France).
Franklin's provocative talk raised a larger question: "Why bother with books at all?" Among his discouraging realities was the notion that, in U.S. sales, flat is the new growth; the decline of libraries in England except as resource centers; and technologies, especially the Internet, which has "just about destroyed the market for reference books." Publishing books, he said, "is a matter of faith tested by the market." He noted that, for each editor, "the books that matter are the books that matter for you and the books you publish." For those books, he explained, "you have to do your best; you have to be like parents fighting for your children."
Many attendees regarded this year's fair as a sort of lovefest. Laurenz Bolliger of Amman Verlag in Switzerland raved: "I loved the Old City, I loved meeting all the friends of the book world from all over, I loved meeting Israeli authors, and most of all: I loved meeting the legendary Zev Birger!"
Francois Laurent from Univers Poche in France reported that, soon after returning home, he received about 80 e-mails from attendees. "Something magic happened this week," he said. "I met extraordinary people in an intense climate of friendship and respect. What are we living for if not that? "
Most evenings wound down in the wee hours at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, near the Old City. The last evening, the hotel's bartender kept serving drinks and then played deejay. The group danced to Arabic music, to ABBA, to American pop. Said San Francisco literary editor Ted Weinstein, "The basement bar of the American Colony Hotel is now my favorite place in the world to do publishing deals."
Perhaps, if the hope of peace is realized, the fellows program could also include editors from Arabic countries. In a moving speech upon receiving her Friend of Jerusalem gold pin, Anne-Solange Noble said, "How fortunate we are that ours is a profession that has always preferred bridges to walls." Perhaps at the 2007 fair, only the bridge will be needed.