Kiwi writers' time to shine

The Kiwi publishing industry is gearing up for its equivalent of the Rugby World Cup, backed by a host of other professions keen to make the most of an unprecedented opportunity to showcase New Zealand writers.

New Zealand is the guest country of honour at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest gathering of what are now known as "content professionals".

The enormous expo, designed to facilitate the trading of foreign language and editorial rights between publishing, film, television, gaming and digital content companies around the globe, selects a guest country each year. The previous guest was Iceland.

New Zealand had been aiming for the 2014 slot, but due to changes at the German end, this year became available and quick decisions had to be made.

Publishing Association of New Zealand president Kevin Chapman says Culture Minister Chris Findlayson made the "big call", officially signing the deal in June last year and stumping up an initial $1.8 million to get the project rolling.

Now with $5m of state backing, a group of government, business, academic and cultural organisations has galvanised to put the best possible "New Zealand Inc" face on the year-long programme, which culminates with the fair itself in October.

"It's akin to the Rugby World Cup and the span of opportunities that gave New Zealand to showcase a whole range of things," said Jules Annear, senior manager at Education New Zealand which aims to promote the Kiwi export education sector.

But unlike the World Cup, where the commercial opportunities were arguably more obvious, the Frankfurt guest of honour status is focused on the country's cultural identity.

Germans have a fascination for New Zealand's indigenous culture anyway, and fair organisers were attracted by New Zealand's oral and visual storytelling traditions, director Juergen Boos said on a visit last week.

"It's like the storytelling here really is everywhere. It's a very different approach."

There are three dimensions to the guest country role – the economic, the cultural and the political. But just as the fair shies away from any overt political agenda, it also refuses to be used as a platform for a hard tourism and trade sell, he says.

"This is not what we want or what we expect from New Zealand," Boos said.

Therefore, said Chapman, the overlay of art and culture with a commercial effort must be subtle and carefully targeted.

Called While You Were Sleeping, to capture the concept of New Zealanders busy at their cultural endeavours while the northern hemisphere is in darkness, the project has five key objectives.

It aims to build new audiences for New Zealand books, digital content and films, and the publishing industry is already reaping the benefits of this.

In any normal year about 10 book titles would be translated and sold into the German market, but since New Zealand was named the next guest country at last year's fair, 66 Kiwi titles have been sold to Germany.

One is Glasgow-based Kiwi writer Paula Morris' historical novel Rangatira, based on the story of Ngati Wai chieftain Paratene te Manu and his 1863 visit to England.

It was picked up "very quickly in the process", Culture and Heritage Ministry communications manager Michelle Taylor said, as was Booker Prize contender Emily Perkins' novel The Forrests.

Almost two-thirds of books sold in Germany are translations, making it a kind of test market, Boos said. If a title does well in Germany, translations into other European languages will follow.

Another objective is to create new markets for New Zealand art and culture in general, including food and wine.

Here, the connection with cookbooks is vital. Education New Zealand will run a New Zealand cooking and recipe competition for German culinary students, and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, in conjunction with New Zealand Winegrowers and Beef and Lamb New Zealand, will conduct a premium food and beverage promotion in a Frankfurt restaurant during the book fair.

New Zealand has also been invited to show off its cuisine and culture at Frankfurt's huge Museums Riverside Festival in August.

New Zealand's prime site on the banks of the River Maine will include a performance stage, and organisers are hoping to get a waka on the water.

The book industry is not one that always fits well with NZTE's activities but the agency has been inventive, Chapman said.

"They've felt around the edges until they found something that's worked for them."

The project aims to enhance business relationships and investment generally, with the New Zealand German Business Association getting together a business delegation to coincide with the fair.

Raising awareness of New Zealand as a tourist destination is also a part of the effort.

The fifth objective of While You Were Sleeping is to back New Zealand's export education industry, both in attracting German students to New Zealand and promoting the active educational publishing sector.

"It's a really good opportunity to promote our world-leading approach to literacy and curriculum development," Education New Zealand's Annear says.

Germany is already New Zealand's sixth biggest source of foreign students and the biggest European market, with 3500 young Germans studying in New Zealand last year. They are divided fairly equally between school, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and Education New Zealand is keen to further promote the country as a place for German students to move through the various stages of their education.

As a result of its guest country status, New Zealand was asked if it could provide a keynote speaker for a literacy conference to be held just before the fair. "So we dived in there, really," Annear said.

It also gets a three-hour presentation slot in the international education hall at the Frankfurt fair, and Education New Zealand will co-ordinate a group of about 15 educational publishers to present a united front at the expo.

Annear said the work had to be seen in terms of maximising the New Zealand-German and wider European relationship long term. "That's how we're thinking about it – what's our bigger story?"

Alongside the commercial initiatives is a full programme of cultural events. Ten New Zealand writers and six publishers took part in the Leipzig Book Fair in March, and there will be film showings, an art exhibition and theatre and dance performances.

Meanwhile the lead agency, the Culture and Heritage Ministry, is busy hosting a steady procession of German journalists to New Zealand.

Media is an important part of the Kiwi effort, and the international media opportunities arising out of the fair are immense, with 10,000 journalists from 63 countries expected to attend.

The New Zealand Inc team is poised ready to make the most of its moment in the spotlight.

Taylor took her latest visiting German media contingent to Waiheke Island's famed Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant, with its panoramic views back to Rangitoto Island and Auckland city. "They just thought they'd died and gone to heaven."

The Dominion Post