Discussions to have the U.S. serve as the guest country at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair were given a push forward last month when new German chancellor Angela Merkel formally invited the U.S. during her meeting with President Bush.

"We are definitely in concrete talks with the U.S. to be Frankfurt's Guest of Honor in 2008," said Juergen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The possible involvement of the U.S. has been making headlines in Germany ever since Merkel returned home. Merkel has told the German press that she officially presented the initiative to the president, and that Laura Bush had enthusiastically embraced the project.

The invitation did not come as a complete surprise to the U.S., Boos explained. He had already talked with Association of American Publishers president Pat Schroeder in June 2005, to prepare the ground. And the Boersenverein, the German Association of Publishers and Booksellers, had briefed the German chancellor before her departure for Washington.

Frankfurt's wish to host the U.S. has a history going back some two decades. In the past, two obstacles have never been overcome; the fact that the U.S. has no federal agency to promote (and finance) cultural presentations abroad, and the lack of an operational arm to manage a substantial project that includes not only books, authors' readings and debates, but also art exhibitions and theater presentations in Frankfurt and all over Germany.

Sources on the American side said those obstacles still stand, particularly the funding issue. South Korea is estimated to have spent $10 million as the guest country in 2005 and the American publishing industry is not in a position to raise that sum of money itself. Government funding is uncertain at best, given high budget deficits and what is seen as little congressional support for such a project. Timing is also an issue. Fall 2008 will be the height of the next presidential election, and no major American politician will want to spend several days out of the country.

Boos is so far undeterred by the cool American reception. He is scheduled to meet with the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William R. Timken, in early February. "It would be nice if the Americans were as excited about the project as the Germans," Boos said.