Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books reports on a ground-breaking gathering of independent publishers from around the world at the Frankfurt Book Fair
As I was editing John Calder’s autobiography, Pursuit, earlier this year, I was particularly interested to read about his involvement in the launch of the first Writers’ Conference at the Edinburgh Festival back in 1962. His idea was born out of a very simple intuition: writers work on their own, and the blank page is a lonely challenge. Why not give authors a platform where they could discuss their ideas and be in touch with their audiences?
That first conference was a ground-breaking occasion, attended by world-renowned international writers such as Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Khushwant Singh, Erich Fried, Harry Mulisch and many others. Many believe that its success led to the creation of some of the major book festivals of today.
I realized, as I was reading those pages, that in our technological times a publisher’s job is equally solitary. We tend to spend most of our time working on books, and have increasingly fewer occasions to mingle with our readers and exchange ideas with other publishers.
For a few years now, I have been attending the dinners organized by Philip Kogan of Kogan Page for a small group of UK independent publishers. The atmosphere there is warm and jovial, and we talk freely about our preoccupations without veering into hard business or book trade politics. More than anything else, these evenings are a morale booster, as they show that we are not alone, and there’s still a great wealth of independent publishing in our country, despite the increasing conglomeration and polarization of our industry.
It occurred to me that I could try to combine the two ideas together into a large social gathering of international independent publishers. I talked about it with Lorenzo Ribaldi of La Nuova Frontiera at The London Book Fair, who agreed that it would be a great idea, and set to work on it. We found the Frankfurt Book Fair, the IPG, ODEI (of which La Nuova Frontiera and more than a hundred other Italian independents are members) and the International Alliance of Independent Publishers very receptive to our proposal, and a venue was soon made available for the occasion by the Frankfurter Buchmesse.
We spread the word to the best of our abilities, sent personal invitations to friends and colleagues and hoped for the best, knowing how difficult it is to get people together during the book fair.
As former IPG chair Oliver Gadsby and I walked towards the venue, we crossed Willy-Brandt Platz and took the large Euro symbol outside the Eurotower as a good omen. We were the first ones to arrive at the AMP Bar and the room was empty. We wondered for a few minutes whether this initiative would be a fiasco, but then publishers started to pour in—from Italy, France, Spain, Canada, the US, Mexico, Germany and many more countries.
Soon the bar was full to capacity, and people—engaged in talking, getting to know each other, drinking and generally having a good time—even began to spill onto the spacious pavement outside. Hundreds of people had spontaneously responded to our simple idea, and had turned the first evening of the Fair into a great celebration of the health and vibrancy of the international publishing scene. The only regret is that we didn’t choose a larger venue to accommodate more people when it started raining outside.
It was a roaring success, which has prompted the IPG and other independent publishing organizations to work more closely in future and try to replicate this event on a bigger scale—both at the forthcoming London Book Fair and future editions of the Frankfurt Book Fair—because it is clear that beyond the social occasion there are many benefits in cooperating on an international level.