Transnational Perspectives

The World as a Fair: Publishing In(ter)dependencies at the Frankfurt Fair

Friday, April 23, 2010, 11 am. At the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, the event “Preparing the trip to Frankfurt” is being held. It is coordinated by Marife Boix Garcia, representative for Latin America of the Austellungs und Messe GmbFI (AuM), the organizing institution of the Frankfurt Book Fair. In the audience, there is Jurgen Boos, president of the German fair and Magdalena Faillace, ambassador extraordinary of the official committee for the presentation of Argentina as a guest of honour country in that year. At the end of the meeting, a young publisher at the back of the audience gets up and makes the authorities feel rather uncomfortable: “How can you help us go to the Frankfurt Fair?” They respond to him formally, in an ambiguous way, implying that small publishers do not have much to do there. It wasn’t a casual episode. At that time, the Argentine publishing market revolved around the great international opportunity. All the actors in the book trade looked towards Europe. The fleeting and perhaps inconsequential event faced by the young unknown publisher and the main promoters of the Argentine exhibition at the Frankfurt Fair may be interpreted as a manifestation and destabilization of a structure that supports contemporary cultural production.

The choice of a country as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair accentuates the internal disputes of a national publishing field (the lines of force that oppose agents, the capacity for collective action of the institutions that represent them, etc.) and highlights the relationship between publishers and the State. A country’s candidacy is promoted by the most dynamic agents in Frankfurt, publishers who thus become “representatives” of a national market. These are, in general, those who have been participating for most time and hold political-sectoral positions that allow them frequent contact with German organizers. But accepting the position is decided by the nation itself, only when the government of the nominated and elected country signs a contract that guarantees funding and official representation. The organization of the presentation of Argentina as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2010 was conducted by an ad hoc entity called Frankfurt Committee (Cofra) and was coordinated by the cultural sector of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.2

The nomination was negotiated amongst publishers; the funding and exhibition, by the national State. As always in capitalism, business interests are protected by the State, benefits of a sector legitimated as the achievement of an entire national community.

Among the publishers, representatives of two chambers participated: the Camara Argentina del Libro (Argentine Book Chamber, CAL) and the Camara Argentina de Publicaciones (Argentine Chamber of Publications, CAP).3 Some differences between CAL and CAP help reveal the structural tensions within any peripheral publishing field in the era of globalization. The CAL has been the institution of trade union representation for publishers since 1938. It was born together with the Society of Writers. The CAP was founded in 1970 and includes not only book publishers but also some magazine producers for the general public. This profile is recognized, in a sharper characterization, as a business chamber. That is why it attracted the affiliation of large companies of educational books, bookstore chains, and major distributors. It was not surprising that it was the institution that sheltered the transnational groups which, since the 1990s, acquired almost all the most dynamic, traditional, recognized enterprises: Estrada, Kapelusz, Sudamericana, Emece, Paidos, etc.4 This effect made the CAL see itself as a territory of “independent publishers”, at least as a political-cultural institution, of resistance, of what is national, of genuine trade. Hence, since the year 2000 approximately, the CAL attracted the participation of small and medium-sized publishers who might not have been interested in union membership and action when that entity was dominated by the emblematic surnames of the Argentine market: Kraft, Zamora, Losada, Garcia, Klasse, Del Carril, etc. Such dynamics of institutional restructuring in publishing, which was an effect of financial concentration and the change in publishing market rules that it brought along with it, was manifested on a continental scale: the Grupo Interamericano de Editores (Inter-American Publishers Group, GIE) was a supranational business institution, which, since 1978, has promoted, among many other actions, the participation of Latin American publishers in global decision-making institutions such as the International Publishers Association. According to Alfredo Weizsflog, an emblematic figure of the Brazilian Book Chamber and the GIE, this association was “detonated by the Spanish groups” towards the end of the 1990s, in an act of discrediting initiated from Santillana, Colombia.5 Transnational holdings such as Santillana and Planeta imposed the change of name of the Group: from Inter-American to Ibero-American.

What I called structural tensions, revealed on the surface by the changes in the institutional frameworks of publishing in Argentina (CAL versus CAP), may be viewed as a binary pair: independent publishers- concentrated groups. Around it a system of complementary oppositions is organized: local/regional-global/transnational, diversity-uniformity, culture-economy, etc. This structure is, in turn, the transformation of previous oppositions and is consistent with its counterparts in different languages and latitudes. Everything happens as if in the publishing markets (and cultural industries in general) the differences between the poles of what Pierre Bourdieu (1999) called restricted production (which privileges the obtaining of symbolic benefits) and large-scale production (which seeks to maximize financial profitability) had been accentuated in a liminal way. This state of affairs would explain how once insignificant forms of action have become visible, such as the “independent publishing” about which years ago it might have been asked: Independent? Of what? Of whom?

In Argentina and in much of the West, the creation of publishing holdings destabilized the previous structure of the publishing system, based on relatively autonomous enterprises and with a strong predominance of the family component of companies. This phenomenon challenged all instances of cultural production and caused closures of companies and culture trades. By 2001, this specific (publishing sector) transformation was synchronized with the devastating Argentine political, economic, and social crisis. In the heat of civic assemblies and the clinging to culture as a form of collective “salvation”, hundreds of small-scale cultural enterprises emerged.6 A study would be needed to establish the extent of death and birth rates for publishers observed between 1995 and 2005.

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