News from the Paris Book Fair

By Mathilde Billaud-Walker

The Paris Book Fair (March 26-31, 2010) celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. The organizers invited 90 writers for the occasion, (60 of them from France and 30 from all over the world) to discuss the topic "Telling the World." Among the discussions were "Writers Exploring an Unknown Land" with Enrique Vila-Matas, Paul Auster, and Emmanuel Carrère (which attracted over 500 people on Saturday, March 27), and "Exile or Censure" with Yan Lianke, Carlos Liscano, and Nedim Gürsel. Other hightlights included readings and conversations with writers of international renown such as António Lobo Antunes, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, Enki Bilal, and Edouard Glissant. The fair provides a rare chance for readers to meet writers from around the world, and many showed up to take advantage of the opportunity.

In order to  focus on the anniversary, the fair didn’t invite a specific foreign country as guest of honor, but international literature was nevertheless well represented. This can perhaps be partly attributed to Hachette downsizing its presence to 100 m2 from the 900 m2 the French publisher usually occupies at the fair. The extra room was filled by publishers from a number of foreign countries. For the first time the five Scandinavian countries had a dedicated stand, and several East European countries (Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Poland) have developed their presence (this was the first visit of the Hungarian Book Foundation to the fair). Uniting nearly 20 publishers, the sub-Saharan countries—which celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their independence this year—also attracted attention. Both Turkey—invited as part of the Season of Turkish Culture in France—and Russia—invited as part of France-Russia Year—had their own sections, where lecture series dedicated to the literature and culture of their countries were hosted.

International literature was present at French Regions, too, the stands where independent publishers from specific parts of France gathered. Many small French publishers have been promoting foreign writers in French translation. Editions du passage du Nord Ouest, has just released another nonfiction book by Mexican writer Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez: El hombre sin cabeza, and Editions Joca Seria has come out with a translation of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Originally published in English in 1964, this is the first book by this great American poet to appear in French. Foreign literature remains a favorite with French readers (since 2000, it has represented nearly 30% of the novels published in France).

The other focus this year has been the growing importance of new technologies, and of digital publishing. A series of events dedicated to the future of reading attracted a great number of readers and publishing professionals. The main concern for French publishers is, of course, the issue of rights ownership in the digital market.  There remains, for instance, a lot of suspicion around Google's plan to digitize European work. All the same, French book lovers do seem ready to make the shift and to begin using digital readers (e-books, smartphones,or i-Pads).

Despite the activity,  the organizers announced at the end of the event a 8% drop in attendance compared to 2009.  This falls in line with book sales in general; the recession is not over.

The Paris Book Fair remains, nevertheless, a key book rendezvous, proving the power of international writing and reading, and its appeal to French readers, old and young (the youth and comics sections were very busy). Next year, it will take place at the Porte de Versailles again  and the Nordic countries will be the guests of honor.


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