While the American publishers in Germany last week might not have noticed it, the United States was not the center of attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This year, that honor went to Korea, which shelled out an estimated $13 million to conduct symposia, build and staff booths and mount extraordinary exhibitions on Korean literary history in a hall the size of a football field.
On the first day of the fair, the Korean prime minister spoke, and an enormous Korean luncheon feast was served for free to anyone who wandered by.
The brainchild of previous management at the Buchmesse, the Guest of Honor nation program has become higher profile and more overtly political in recent years, extending offers to nations from Israel to the Arab World. (The former has so far declined, Buchmesse PR director Holger Ehling tells me, due to the expense; the latter was the honoree in 2004.) "The idea is to bring cultures together," Ehling said. That, and of course, to "build the relationships" that will connect publishers and marketplaces, preferably worldwide.
It's no secret that most large and medium-size American publishers—save for Harcourt and Grove Atlantic, mostly—are not exactly devoted to publishing literature in translation. And it's unclear that a program like this is going to change anyone's publishing program. Of the several editors I asked, none was taking a special look at books by or about Korea and Koreans, and some seemed surprised that I'd even asked. (That a couple of titles by Koreans or Korean-Americans were just bought or are currently on submission was deemed a coincidence.) While open, in theory, to the idea, publishers say, the realities of the marketplace—surprise!—win out. "We have a hard enough time getting our own books to readers," one cynic told me. "Books in translation are a very hard sell."
And while it's true that the average American publisher can probably count on one hand the number of translations that have turned bestseller (Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Hoeg, the recent Carlos Ruiz Zafón), there is a sense, at the fair, that the American failure to embrace non—English-speaking authors is yet another function of our arrogance and xenophobia. After all, the thinking goes, the Spanish, French and particularly the Germans buy our books all the time; it's as if we're expected to return the favor.
But publishing, for all its admirable, high-end and altruistic qualities, is not about politically correct favors, it is—or it should be—about publishing books that will sell. The smart publishers already know this, and try to be both literary and financially savvy at the same time. Instead of chasing the $7-million Warren Buffett deal—a book that cannot possibly ever make a dime for its publisher——they look for less buzzy projects, in whatever language, that are bound to be a lot less expensive. Then—in a perfect world—they put their money into what really matters: publishing and promoting the books and getting them into the hands of readers.
That, to me, would be a pretty great cultural exchange.