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Claudia Kaiser Interview - Varlık Magazine

You’ve been the VP of the Frankfurt Fair since 2003. Before that you worked at the UN Publications in New York. You also founded the German Book Info Center. So, how did you make your way from all that to the Frankfurt Book Fair?

I was trained as a bookseller. In Germany we have apprenticeships; you have to be an apprentice in order to be able to work in a bookshop. Following that I went to university, where I studies Chinese. I wanted to study something very different from what I knew. I later went to China for my studies I wanted to somehow combine bookselling with Chinese. So, I worked for a publishing house in China. At the same time, I started an agency to sell rights for German publications to China. Later on, the Frankfurt Book Fair took notice of this and wanted to help organize a German stand at the Beijing International Book Fair. There they saw that there was a lot of interest in German books and decided to open an office in China. They decided to ask me to set up this office and run it for them. I did that for a time, but I went to the UN when I felt like I needed a change. But in the end, the Frankfurt Book Fair came back to me and asked me to do more work for them. That’s how I ended up as part of the FBF, in a nutshell.

You’ve been part of the FBF for quite some time. Over the years, it’s been said that the fair got physically smaller. But it’s also gotten more international and therefore, in a sense, bigger. Which is true, in your experience?

I think it’s absolutely true. The fair looks physically smaller now, but it’s not. It’s actually growing and is bigger now than it’s ever been. We have 7000 exhibitors; that number has grown 2-3% from 2017 to 2018. This is amazing, since the publishing world doesn’t seem to be in the best shape at the moment. 

We did have to change the fair a bit over the years. We used to have more English-speaking publishers. But we saw that the business was becoming more international. When I first joined the Frankfurt Fair, the German Market was 60% German and 40% international. Now it’s 40% German and 60% international. What’s more, markets like Indonesia, Phillipines and Vietnam are growing. We also saw that the distance between the different buildings was problematic for people who had back to back meetings. So, we got rid of Hall A and brought everyone closer by opening up another level in one of the buildings.

So, the changes that you’ve brought to the Frankfurt Fair are a reflection of the changes seen in the global publishing world, like there being an increase in literature in translation in Germany or the English-speaking world. But what do you think fuels and drives these changes?

I think this is a natural process and it has a lot to do with the socio-political changes we see around the world. In the States, we have more and more Spanish speaking people. We have an influx of immigrants all over the world, especially in Europe, from the Arabic countries. So, societies are developing different needs. That’s part of it.

Over the years, our countries have become much more diverse. Our societies have become more diverse. More communities of different races are able to raise their voices and be heard. And of course, the publishing world picks up on that: That’s our job.

Based on that, what do you think are the emerging trends in the publishing world?

There are a number of trends. Looking at it from the technological angle; streaming services such as Netflix present a huge opportunity to publishers. I don’t think publishers are fully aware of this yet. But these people are looking for content, just like film people are. I don’t think the publishing world has fully explored this kind of business line yet. Partly because a lot of publishers haven’t realized it and partly because they have reservations about it. But I do think the opportunity these streaming services provide are the next big thing to come. Same goes for video games and other such areas. I think this is definitely a major trend to watch out for. 

You’ve started this platform called “Story Drive Asia”. Could you tell me a little about this platform and why such platforms are important for the global market?

Publishers need to explore new ways of distributing and getting the word out about their content. Story Drive Asia aims to help publishers identify new models of revenue: How do you work with digital platforms? How do you work with the film industry? How do you work with the video game industry? How do you get your stuff out there?

There are many new ways to get our materials out there now. Online platforms like Wattpad, audiobooks, streaming services… There are many ways to turn our content into income and many people aren’t aware of these ways. Many people, like small publishers, don’t have the time to explore them. That is what Story Drive Asia tries to help publishers with.

This is your first Istanbul Fellowship. What are your initial impressions of the fellowship? How does it compare to the Frankfurt Fair, aside from being much smaller than it?

The fair associated with the Istanbul Fellowship is a selling fair from what I’ve seen. That is to say, publishers aim to sell their books to readers. In Germany, we have fixed price system. This means that a book has the same price, wherever you go; regardless of whether you buy it in a small bookshop or a large one or even at a gas station. Because of this, it’s impossible to have a fair where there are huge discounts on books. Because of this, we would not have a fair in Germany that would be a selling fair. That’s the main difference between the two fairs, I think.

As for the fellowship program, I think it’s marvelous. It allows smaller publishers to get together, not just the big ones and creates new business opportunities. That’s extremely important. We have a fellowship program at the Frankfurt Fair as well. For us, it was very important to reach out the new generation, give them access, make them part of this ecosystem and create bonding opportunities. This happens in the Istanbul Fellowship as well, but on another level.

Considering how important smaller fairs could be for local and global markets, what can be done to support smaller fairs?

Fellowship programs are one way of doing this. Then of course there are platforms where any publisher can share their content and anyone who’s looking for content can go online and find them. You can basically do the entire transaction on this automated system. You can buy rights online, get a book published online… Many people still don’t know if they want to use these platforms or not. But at the end of the day, this is a system that definitely supports smaller publishers. On top of that, there are agent that people can use. There are networks, too, like Literature Without Borders where people really make an effort to present the literature of smaller countries and languages that aren’t as well known as others. On top of that, the fact that there are more publishers translating books from other languages, in America is a very promising, positive in this respect too.

So, how are all these new platforms that are popping up changing copyright laws in the publishing world?

Well, we are seeing a lot of instances in countries like Latvia or India or South Africa of publishers losing out on their works. Because governments look at the situation from only one point of view and say: Let’s democratize knowledge. They’re saying that anything should be reachable, at all times. Open Access. 

This, of course, especially effects educational publishers. The problem is if you do this, you don’t recognize the value of the publishers who are doing the editing, looking for new content, choosing the content… All that’s being undermined in this process. That is a huge problem where copyright laws are concerned. 

On top of that, we still have the regular copyright problems, in countries like Indonesia. If you ask them, their biggest problem isn’t online piracy but paperback piracy. You have that everyone in the world.

Going back to the Frankfurt Fair; How long does planning an event that size take? For instance, you choose your market focus country years in advance, right?

We choose our market focus countries at least three years in advance. Especially when the market focus is a country like Turkey or Indonesia whose main language isn’t English. In those cases, you have to find the translators who can translate the literary works, or at least part of the works in advance, you have to get media attention which becomes harder and harder by the day. You need time for all that, none of it can be done in a day.

Planning such an event obviously take a great deal of organization. One of the feedbacks we always receive is how well-organized the Frankfurt Book Fair is. You need a team that obviously knows what it’s doing, that has been trained for a really long time. 

But here’s the interesting thing: What’s expected of the Frankfurt Book Fair for it to know more. The fair is expected to know the next big thing in the industry. So, we always have to be a step ahead. We always have to be talking to people from other industries and to people who are doing new things in their industry. We have to try to understand where the business, the industry is going. We have to figure out how to present that at the fair, so that other people can benefit from it. That, I think, is the most important thing that sets the Frankfurt Fair aside from everywhere else.

Considering the economic situation of the world, for example the increase in the price of paper, how do you think the global publishing world is faring? How do you think this course will affect the global publishing world?

I think it’s very hard to guess which direction things will go. I think there’s enormous pressure in the west. I’m still optimistic, but at the same time I recognize that we have to find new solutions. Because digital books are not going to go away. Our children, the next generation will live in a very different world. So, the pressure we feel will only mount. But that doesn’t change the fact that story telling is also there to stay. Story telling has always been there and will always be there. Given that, I think the content will always be there but the way we consume and distribute that content will change.