A conversation with Dana Kalinová, managing director of the Book World festival

Book World, photo: Kristýna Maková

Hello and welcome to Czech Books. I am Dominik Jůn, and my guest today in the studio is Dana Kalinová, the managing director of Book World (Svět knihy), and also the Prague International Book Fair and Literary Festival (or Prague Book Fair). Book World was founded in 1997 by the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers. Along with the fair, it was set up to promote publishing efforts, Czech books, and to help foreign publishers seeking to publish in the Czech Republic. Thank you for joining us, Dana – explain to us the role of the Prague Book Fair.

Dana Kalinová,  photo: YouTube
“This year was the 21st annual Book Fair...”

I should mention that the last fair was just held a couple of weeks ago, from May 14-17, and it was held, as usual in Prague’s Výstaviště.

“We started organising the book fair in 1995, but I came to the company one year later. From the beginning, we knew that we could not be just a professional book fair, like Frankfurt of London. We were convinced that we must also be open to the public. And in this way, we attract exhibitors – publishers to come and participate. And also visitors, who come to see the various programmes and to meet writers they like, and also to buy books. So this was the identity of the book fair from the beginning. And because the accompanying programme was growing year by year, we started calling this programme a ‘festival’ because now it is also of festival dimensions.

“I think that quite quickly we managed to get the attention of the international professional public. We managed to find dates when the book fair should be organised – because there are many international book fairs around the world.”

Yes, so how has the Czech one managed to raise its profile over the years?

“Actually, even in the 1990s, the world was very much interested in us. They wanted to come. They did not know the market well, and wanted to break-in. And we were here to help them.”

So these were publishers, who might want to have foreign works translated into Czech for a Czech audience.

“Right. Of course, those countries which don’t have a major problem with regards to translating works, are not coming. These are English-speaking countries, especially Great Britain or the United States.”

They aren’t interested in foreign works?

Book World,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“They are, but they know that we are translating many books from their language into Czech. So they know that despite not attending a festival such as ours, their books will be translated anyway. But because we managed to join a very good project that was called ‘Literature Across Frontiers’, which began ten years ago, and is subsidised by the EU, and we were partners for nine years. Our goal was to promote minor languages. If I say minor, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate such languages – but we wanted to promote literature between smaller countries and non-world-spoken languages. In this way, we managed to invite or welcome many writers from such countries. So the platform of our festival was really international.”

What exactly is the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers?

“They are a professional organisation, which fights for the interests of publishers and booksellers. They still operate as a single association – in some countries it is divided, so booksellers have their own association, and publishers have another. Just recently they fought for lower VAT for books, because we had a very high VAT rate.”

Which was?

“It was 15 percent [now 10 percent].”

Although for regular products it is higher – 21 percent. There is a scale of rates.

“Yes, but if you compare VAT for books in other countries, we had one of the highest rates. And that was wrong, because a book is not just a product, it is also an educational tool. So the Association lobbied the government, and were successful in this. So I think this organisation is here to defend the interests of the professional public. This is a very important role. In the beginning, the Frankfurt Book Fair served as our inspiration for how a book fair should be organised. This is also owned by the Association of German Publishers. So we copied that model, and in 1997, the Association founded a private company – Svět knihy – the same name as the book fair, and we are in charge of business and promotional activities on behalf of the professional literary and book market.”

How strong is the Czech book market? Would you say that, comparatively speaking, Czechs are avid readers?

Book World 2015,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Czechs are still considered to be really strong readers. But, off course, we cannot fall asleep at the wheel. So we kicked-off a campaign, which we call ‘Growing up with Books’; we have many such projects and are focused on children and young people to promote reading, to get their attention. Because, of course, this new coming generation often uses other tools for reading. We are not against new, electronic reading devices, but we want young people to really be able to read in-depth content. Very often, young people read, but they do not understand the content.”

Is that the effect of the “Twitter generation” – that everything must be 140 characters or less?

“Yes. It should not be like that. But our projects have met with great success. One of them is called ‘Battle of the Readers’ and it is targeted at 12-year-olds, and they compete in their knowledge of the contents of five books. And they are very good in this.”

How successful are Czech books abroad? For example, Czech books translated into English or other languages? Is it tough to get a Czech author known or cared about abroad?

“There are a few well-known writers, who have an audience abroad. But, of course, this is a never-ending marathon. Being a smaller country with many good writers, we must find ways to secure the spotlight for ourselves. And there are around two or three agencies working on behalf of Czech writers. Then there is a special Ministry of Culture programme, which supports presentation at literary festivals or at book fairs.

“But I am really sorry to see that price plays the main role in the promotion of literature. You should not be doing it in the cheapest possible way. And also there should be some kind of concept concerning where I go; which market is amenable; you must follow international trends and interests. For example, the Asian market is still very open to translated books. There are other markets, which are essentially closed, and it is thus not worth investing too much into them. It really takes time. You cannot skip from one market to another. You must have a special conception in place.”

And, conversely, there are also foreign books which are translated into Czech. How are those decisions made? Sometimes I walk past a bookstore window and am amazed by the choice of foreign books they have available in Czech.

Book World,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Of course, there are bestsellers. Publishers battle with each other to acquire the rights to those. And then, almost each country in Europe – and increasingly beyond, too – has a so-called ‘literary centre’. These centres have money to support translations. So publishers are happy, of course, to get money to cover the costs of translation. And I think that sometimes they follow titles that are supported by these centres. Because usually these centres do not support bestselling writers, but rather those writers who need promotional assistance.

“We have a similar programme in this country. But we do not have a literary centre. Everything is done through the Ministry of Culture and their clerks.”

What countries are popular in terms of providing translated works to the Czech market?

“Looking at Czech book market data, it shows that almost one-third of all annual publications are translations. English-language is in first place. Then German, French, and then other languages. Also, the number of Slovak books translated into Czech is increasing, which is really a pity because we understand each other very well.”

That is whole other discussion...


At the last Book Fair, You had, for example, representatives from Azerbaijan, Serbia – small countries such as these. So they were pushing for their authors to be translated into Czech?

“That is the reason why they attend. Some of them already have translations and are brining along writers who were already translated. Others are coming along with writers that they would like to introduce to the Czech market. And many are coming to attract publishers. An audience can also provide feedback to publishers [on author popularity]. It is a platform. It is an exchange of opinions. It is a discussion between people.

“In this way we, for example, welcomed Saudi Arabia in 2011 as our guest of honour. They wanted to be the guest of honour and we accepted them. Because to not accept this would mean we were still isolated.”

What perks does a guest of honour receive? This year, I understand it was Egypt. Is there some kind of priority treatment given?

Book World,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Yes. They have a very big stand. They bring more writers. We collaborate with them. We promote them. We spotlight them from our side, too. Next year we will welcome the Scandinavian countries, as well as Denmark – three plus one.”

How do you gauge a successful festival? From the statistics on your website, you had 38,000 visitors this year; 30 participating countries; 19 films projected; 26 exhibitions; 479 programmes; 571 participants. When all is said and done, do you count the number of deals reached, contracts signed? What makes you say it was a successful festival?

“To me, the success should be counted according to visitor numbers. If we have 38,000 people coming, then it is a success.”

You are emphasising the public aspect, and not the deal-making part of it then?

“Regardless of money and the financial aspects of it, the visitors are central. Of course, if we manage to have strong international participation in terms of exhibiting, then this also represents a kind of success. But we should not be measured or compared to Frankfurt or London. This is the success of a smaller country, which has managed to attract the attention of people and those who want to undertake some promotional work within the Czech book market. But, if many people are coming to meet writers, to see books, to buy books, for me this is the main goal of the fair.”

Dana Kalinová, managing director of Book World, thank you very much for joining us.

“Thank you.”