The Foire du Livre du Bruxelles, known in English as the Brussels Book Fair, celebrated its 50th anniversary this month with a new international program aimed at raising the event’s profile. Held February 14–17, this year’s fair, which serves the French-speaking community in Belgium, attracted 72,000 visitors, up 5% from 2018.

Nearly 1,300 exhibitors registered for the event, including most of the top trade publishing houses from Belgium, France, and Quebec, such as Actes Sud, Bragelonne, Gallimard, and Seuil. Numerous Belgian book retailers also exhibited, such as Librebook, a Brussels bookstore that offers titles in 20 European languages.

This year’s fair featured a revamped professional program spearheaded by FLB director Gregory Laurent and Paris literary agents Pierre Astier and Laure Pécher. “The intent is to establish Brussels as a premier venue for French publishers to exhibit, reach out to readers, and to discuss potential rights deals and other opportunities to develop business relationships,” Laurent said at a dinner party attended by several of the fair’s keynote speakers, including Michael Chabon from the U.S., Boualem Sansal from Algeria, and Kim Thúy from Québec.

The key feature of the professional program was a two-day matchmaking seminar for independent global francophone publishers. Dubbed “Talented Indies,” the seminar offered a showcase for 20 publishers—including Alto (Quebéc), Atrabile (Switzerland), Diagonale (Belgium), Elyzad (Tunisia), Au Forges de Vulcain (France), Ker (Belgium), and Tombouctou (Mali)—and gave them the opportunity to present their work to a dozen editors, foreign rights directors, and literary scouts from Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K.

Astier has organized similar events at book fairs: in Paris in 2015 and in Casablanca in 2016. In his opening talk at the seminar, he noted that French is spoken by 275 million people worldwide, making it the fifth-most-spoken language on the planet, and that nearly 60% of French speakers are in Africa. In all, he said, there are some 92,000 titles published annually in French, with 69,000 coming from France and the remainder from Africa (3,500), Belgium (8,000), Canada (8,500), and Switzerland (3,000).

Literary scout Koukla MacLehose of London Literary Scouting praised the diversity of publishers represented at the fair. “It reminds me of Sharjah, where I met with publishers I would not otherwise get time to meet with at the big fairs such as London or Frankfurt,” she said. “Here, it is the same—I get to learn about what is happening locally in West Africa, for example, which is very hard to do otherwise. It is also interesting to note that African publishers are interested in buying books from America, for example.”

Sulaiman Adebowale, director of Amalion Editions in Dakar, Senegal, whose titles are distributed through Independent Publishers Group in the U.S., expressed his satisfaction with the program, as well. “Fellowships like this are especially important for publishers such as ourselves to reach out to the rest of the world,” he said. “And it is helpful in so far as it allows us to demonstrate that our work is just as sophisticated and relevant to readers as the books of our colleagues in Europe.”

Agnes Orzoy, editor and rights director at Hungary’s Magveto, said she was especially impressed by the “diversity of intellectual energy” among the participants, noting that “every publisher has a book I would like to read.” She added that face-to-face meetings, particularly with countries that have contentious political histories, is important to maintaining business relationships. “I live in Budapest and know what happens there,” she said. “Then I read the reports in the Western papers and you would think it is much, much more difficult for us than it is.”

Malgorzata Szczureka, editorial director of Karakter from Poland, concurred, noting that it was important for other publishers to know that her publishing house is in opposition to Poland’s autocratic government. “The further the government goes right, the more we publish to the left,” she said.

For others, the event was an opportunity to consider new books ahead of competitors. Tim Pilcher publisher of the U.K.’s Soaring Penguin Press, was in Brussels to scout new comic books. “When it comes to BD [bandes dessinées, as comics are called in French], the Belgian and French publishers are ahead of the game, so being here offers great insight,” he said.

Reflecting on the event, Astier said he hopes the matchmaker program fits into the larger cultural agenda and projection of soft power promoted by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France. “Macon has made it part of his agenda to reassert the French language to a place of prominence in political, economic, and cultural activities around the world,” Astier noted. “The publishers we have gathered here are determined to work together to help make that exchange with the rest of the world happen.”