HOW often would one meet editors of different nationalities from Southeast Asia at one place? This opportunity was bestowed upon 12 children’s book editors from seven Asean nations to gather in a country where fairy tales were birthed — Germany!

The fairy godmother in this case was the international publishing industry’s biggest book fair, Frankfurter Buchmesse. Waving its wand to promote goodwill and dialogue while fostering personal and professional networking, Frankfurter Buchmesse organised this rare study trip in June for 12 book-meisters from the Asean region.

“It wasn’t an easy selection process,” admits Barbel Becker, director of International Projects & Cooperations, Frankfurter Buchmesse. She reveals that the response was overwhelming — a total of 120 submissions poured from seven countries. Whittling down the numbers to 12, the editors were finally selected from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

And so we came to be. A motley team that had barely said Herzlichen Glückwusch! (congratulations!) to each other when our extensive itinerary was unveiled. An opportunity of a lifetime promised to be sensory overload.

Apart from covering locations famed for its rich history in children’s literature (Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Hamburg), our motley coterie would be visiting publishing houses, bookstores, illustrators’ studios, start-ups and literature houses.

There’s literally so much to do in such a short time in Germany!


Customers browsing books at a local Germany bookstore

SHARED STRUGGLES

Are we really different from our German counterparts? We may have come from across the globe, but there are so many startling similarities that it seems even more surreal than our visit to fairy tale lands of Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Hamburg. In such a short time, we find ourselves warming up to German book publishers.

Why? Simply because the struggles of the German book publishing industry are not so different from ours. It seems ironic that they too share similar challenges —the struggle to get people to read books, the struggle to obtain enough funding for book publications and reading promotions, and of course, the ever present challenge of sensitivity when it comes to topics discussed in books.

What’s heartening (even more so than the hearty German food spread) is the fact that we share the same fighting spirit. “The German book market may be down, but it is still strong,” declares Renate Reichstein, Foreign Rights director of Oetinger Verlagsgruppe publishing, before pointing out that the turnover per year 9 billion euros (RM45 billion) for the overall German book market, “is encouraging”. She adds: “The children’s section takes a share of between 15.8 and 16 per cent from that.”

In addition, there’s the inescapable American and UK invasion that’s prevalent everywhere. “Harry Potter is huge in Germany, as too John Green’s ‘sick lit’ Fault In The Stars, and Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. American books sell better than their German counterparts owing to movie franchises,” says Reichstein drily.


Renate Reichstein, Foreign Rights director of the Oetinger Verlagsgruppe.

The similarities strike a chord with our team. Myo Aung from Myanmar shares Reichstein’s optimism. “Amidst the negativity we face in our country over the lack of funding and support, there remains a lot of hope,” says the vice-president of Myanmar Publishers and Book Sellers Association.

Meanwhile, the editor with Lampara Publishing House in the Philippines, Eugene Y. Evasco, reveals that Filipinos too favour American books. Thoughtfully, he surmises: “I think, in order to develop our literature, we need to develop our language too.”

ADVENT OF DIGITAL BOOKS

Few countries have contributed so much to science and technology as Germany. From physics and chemistry to cars and consumer products, Germany is a world leader in innovation, boasting leading universities and research institutes alongside major engineering, IT and manufacturing industries. However, digital or e-books are still very much in its infancy here in das Land.

According to the e-book study undertaken by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Bˆrsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels) in 2011, e-books accounted for only six per cent of the total sales of German publishing houses. “Most youngsters have devices but they don’t read books on it,” says Reichstein wryly, adding that the e-book market is very costly and “...investors who invest in digital can be disappointed by the market reaction.”

Indonesian editor and Head of Kanisius Media’s Educational Department, Rosalia Emmy Lestari is amazed that the Germans still prefer printed books. She says: “Despite the worrying trends, I applaud German book publishers for their efforts in printing books as they believe good books still have their loyal readers.”

DISCOVERING OUR OWN HERITAGE

Despite speaking different languages, we all share one common love — children’s books. For some, it’s a passion ignited in childhood. Meeting for the very first time in Germany was not a hindrance to our developing a strong bond while sharing and exchanging ideas over copious amounts of schnitzel and apple strudel.

One thing we can all agree on is the fact that it certainly expanded our often myopic view of the book publishing industry. For Evasco, the trip has challenged him to look beyond the Philippines. Thoughtfully, he shares: “It’s helped me understand both the Asean and German book markets. I admire the German publishing houses. We’ve got a lot to glean from them in terms of production, development, and marketing of books.”


Editors of children’s books from Southeast Asia with

Continuing, he confides that he believes that in order for the Asean book scene to stand out, it must invest in the regions’ own literary heritage. “We need to publish more folk tales. We must popularise our own legends, epics and myths. We should take pride in our Asian roots!”

Echoing Evasco’s opinion, Kate Nguyen, editor and Rights Manager of Women’s Publishing House in Vietnam points out that the publishers of the Asean region should work together to bring forth its beautiful and rich history through children’s tales. “Through the combination of unique ways of illustrations and adopting key learning points from Germany and other western countries, we can certainly create something special and outstanding here in our region.”

They concur unanimously that folk tales and local stories, by their nature, celebrate diversity. By experiencing stories from different cultures, Asean children can gain valuable insights about another culture’s values, beliefs, history, practices and customs. When children learn about diverse cultural traditions, they not only broaden their view of the world, they may also develop a greater appreciation of their own country’s heritage.

LEARNING FROM GERMANY AND EACH OTHER

“The best part about learning new ideas is the fact that we can learn from each other,” says Elaine Ee, deputy director, content publishing, of National Gallery Singapore. “The cross-cultural exchange is not limited to Germany alone. In fact, countries like Vietnam and Indonesia hold so much potential as well.”

Recalling her inspiration from the study trip, Tan Mooi Yean, editor with Odonata Publishing in Malaysia remarks that nothing surprised her more than the success story of Tessloff Verlag, a publisher of non-fiction books in Germany.


Editors from Southeast Asia receive a warm welcome from the representatives of Carlsen Verlag at their office in Hamburg, Germany.

“The success story of the Was Ist Was non-fiction series by Tessloff really surprised me because today’s children are technology-dependent and aren’t interested in exploring the world,” she remarks, adding that Tesloff’s innovation and creativity attracted both children and their parents to discover the world in a fun way. She’s amazed by its popularity because she’d always thought that children are usually turned off by non-fiction, often dismissing it as dry and boring. “It changes the way I see children’s books now!” she exclaims.

What began as an opportunity of a lifetime to discover the secrets of story-telling and book publishing in a land where the famous Brothers Grimm gathered the narratives for their world-famous stories for children, culminated in endless possibilities to bring forth stories that could rival those of Grimm’s. In the midst of all our exchanges, we realise that there’s so much we can do. Because there are still stories out there that are yet to be captured in a book. And it’s really up to us to do just that.

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