Navigation Kopfzeile

The Vienna Book Fair makes its successful debut

By Thomas Keul

Vienna is the kind of place where the pessimists are usually right. The local scepticism towards all things new was as much in evidence as ever during the preparations for the first Viennese book fair, which was launched last November as Buch Wien 08 (‘Book Vienna 2008’). For the past sixty years the trade has contented itself with the Wiener Buchwoche (‘Viennese Book Week’), an event in the town hall organised by the Austrian book trade, which primarily meant local publishing. And for many of the long-established publishers involved, this could have continued quite happily for the next sixty years.
The recent replacement of the ageing Buchwoche in the neo-gothic town hall by an internationally organised book festival housed in Vienna’s new exhibition centre is mainly down to the initiative of the Austrian Book Trade Association, and more specifically its president, Alexander Potyka. Its success has fully justified him. More than 31,000 enthusiasts flocked to explore what the exhibiting publishers had to offer and to attend the events which took place at the fair and its simultaneous festival of reading, the Lesefestwoche. Potyka sees this as a sign that ‘a book festival in Vienna was long overdue’.
The level of importance which Austria attaches to the fair as an official event was evident in the sheer number of local politicians who attended the official opening on 19 November 2008. As well as Vienna’s Cultural Counsellor, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, and the Minister for Education and the Arts, Claudia Schmied, even the President of the Bundestag, Heinz Fischer, couldn’t leave without saying a few words, covering a broad range of history in his speech. In his eyes, ‘Book Vienna’ is a ‘new step, reflecting the changes that have taken place since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the newfound closeness of the countries of Central Europe brought about by the European Union.’
In contrast to this rather elevated political rhetoric, Matthias Limbeck, the director of the organisers, Reed Exhibitions, maintained a tone of agreeable modesty in his opening speech. By no means, he maintained, can ‘Book Vienna 08’ be compared with the famous fairs put on by Leipzig and Frankfurt. The aim of Vienna’s fair is primarily to bring the publishing houses into direct contact with their readers.
Avoiding a comparison with Frankfurt and Leipzig is indeed a good strategic ploy; with only 271 exhibitors over an area of around 7,000 square metres, the Viennese exhibition is by no means, at this stage, in the same league as the big guns.
Whilst publishing houses such as Random House, Hanser and Diogenes jumped at the opportunity to present their wares to the Austrian public, there were some notable absences, Suhrkamp and Rowohlt, for example. As can be expected though, the Austrian publishing contingent was fully represented.
Numerous smaller publishing houses from the independent scene were also in attendance, full of enthusiasm, and their innovative programmes made a distinct contribution to the all-round stimulating atmosphere of the fair. The stands of Urs Engeler, Blumenbar, Lilienfeld, Reprodukt, Merve, Salis and the Mitteldeutschen Verlag all found eager and inquisitive visitors.
The programme’s main focus on the literature of south-eastern Europe reflected Vienna’s historic role, and found its expression in the collaborative stands of the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Slovakia, along with numerous other organisations. Ilija Trojanow’s ironic and critically tinged speech at the inaugural evening was the perfect complement, honouring the figures of the fallen Habsburg Empire.
A considerable success at the fair was the Lesefestwoche (‘Reading Festival Week’) taking place alongside, to which the programme director Gabriele Madeja had invited stars and newcomers from all over the world. For a whole week literature was the talking point at over seventy venues across the city. Donna Leon completed two equally overcrowded events, and Elke Heidenreich read to a fearless public on Vienna’s ferris wheel in the face of gale-force winds. Eastern European literature was represented by, amongst others, Peter Esterhazy, Ismail Kadare, Juri Andruchowytsch, Nenad Popovic, Dragan Velikic, Georgi Gospodinov, Peter Zilahy and Alek Popov.
A spin-off programme was dedicated to the independent publishers at Vienna’s small theatre, the ‘brut’, where the stars included the renowned theorist and cultural critic Klaus Theweleit, speaking about and playing records from his ‘Sigmund Freud Songbook’, and Thomas Kapielski sharing extracts of his substantial body of work.
The events for children and young people proved to be big sellers; they were booked up days in advance and the organisers were able to arrange readings by Wolfgang Hohlbein, Helga Bansch, Adelheid Dahiméne, Franz Obel, Heinz Janisch, Lene Mayer- Skumanz and Michael Stavaric.
The fair’s trade figures were a pleasant surprise too. Thanks to the public’s enthusiasm and support, the hoped for total turnover was already achieved half way through the event. And the reactions from most of the publishing houses were just as positive. Reinhold Joppich, marketing director at Kiepenheuer & Witsch, said: ‘I was initially rather sceptical about whether the concept would take off, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the crowds it has attracted. A number of school groups came on the very first day, which is a definite plus.’ Herwig Bitsche, director of the longestablished Residenz publishing house, shared the same view and was impressed by how strongly readers took to ‘Book Vienna’. ‘It was a magnificent start’, he declared, ‘and I hope that we can make the fair a fixed event in our calendars for years to come.’
At the end of its four days the festival’s organisers, Reed Exhibitions and the Austrian Book Trade Association, were just as pleased. The foundations have now been laid, ‘Book Vienna 09’ is already in the planning stages, and – following on from the positive reactions of the exhibitors of 2008 – there are clear indications that even those publishing houses who stayed away last November will re-think their decision this next time round.
Translated by Jamie Searle
Thomas Keul
is the editor of Volltext, the monthly literary newspaper based in Vienna.