260 Color printing and the international order

For thirty years a small network organization of publishers of illustrated non-fiction and art books has been meeting before the Frankfurt Book Fair to do deals of their own. The east-west group, called Motovun, had particular value during the Cold War. The trade in color printing in eastern Europe before the Wende was however not only collegial and commercial. It was also fed by the desperation of the Communist authorities to acquire western currency, to the point of selling out the interests of their own publishers.

During the same decades when black-and-white television was being replaced by color, black-and-white illustrations in printed books were being replaced by color plates. In 1950 it was exceptional for an art book or illustrated non-fiction to have color, in 2000 black-and-white was the exception. This shift was costly. Color origination, lithography and printing are all much more expensive than black-and-white.

In order to get the price of the finished book down to a reasonable level, publishers began to cooperate more than they had ever done before across borders and language areas. The more copies of a book one can print, the lower the unit price. And so publishers of similar kinds of illustrated books in different parts of the world began to seek each other out to share large print runs in what are called co-editions. This form of collaboration is very different than just buying the translation rights to a novel. It fosters intensive cooperation over a long period and contributes notably to international understanding in the graphic industry.

One of the fathers of modern co-publishing is an ex-Yugoslavian from Montenegro, Bato Tomašević, who now publishes in London. Thirty years ago, Tomašević created a network organization to bring a group of befriended publishers together once a year to sell new projects to each other. Because the meetings were long held in the Croatian town of Motovun, the organization was given that name. Preceding the massive Frankfurt Book Fair by a few months, the more intimate Motovun gatherings help member publishers put co-editions into place in advance, giving them more margin and more negotiating power for expanding their co-editions at Frankfurt.

Earlier this month I attended Motovun for the first time, in the castle-hotel Schloss Eckberg outside Dresden. I took advantage of the occasion to meet with old friends from the Dresden art museums. One of them told me at dinner a story about the problems encountered by her husband, an art-book publisher, in the DDR days of the 1980s. “He is a great admirer of the graphic artist Anatoli Kaplan. He wrote a book about him that was ready to go to press when the authorities told us that the paper he had ordered for it had to be used for another book. We published it together at our own expense in 1990 after the Wende."

That morning, in the park of Schloss Eckberg, a Dutch publisher had told me something that illuminated that sad story in a nasty way. “It was great business in Eastern Europe in the 1980s," he said. “They were so desperate for foreign currency that they would produce books for us at 40 or even 60 percent below cost just to be able to bill us in dollars or marks." I saw it before me. There went the paper for the Kaplan book, into a supermarket cookbook for Holland.

My attendance at Motovun came about because my book on Rembrandt was published by the retiring president of the group, Jan Martens of Mercatorfonds. Thanks to his incomparable network, he was able to bring out six different language editions of the book, in Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish and Russian. [As of Rembrandt’s birthday in 2010, the Russian edition has not yet materialized.] It is being printed in southern Italy, for a fair price and on terms that will not disadvantage local printers, publishers or artists.


Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 22 July 2006

We took advantage of the invitation to attend Motovun in order to visit some German cities we had not yet seen, or not in a long time. Hannover on the way to Dresden and on the way back Meissen, Leipzig, Naumburg and Weimar, with a final stop at the Gemäldegalerie in Kassel to see the two Rembrandt exhibitions running concurrently. Superior diversion, but with too little time per destination. We resolved not for the first time not to do this kind of cultural zapping anymore; next time we will go to one or two places for a longer period, having prepared ourselves beforehand by reading guidebooks and local histories. Our trip to Wörlitz three years ago is a model, on which we can improve.

We drove into Dresden in a car with Dutch license plates at the very moment when Germany was eliminated in the world soccer championships. German-Dutch soccer rivalry still has aggressively nationalistic overtones. When Holland was eliminated in the previous round, a German song was released, “Ohne Holland fahren wir nach Berlin" (We – that is, the German team – are on our way to Berlin – where the finals were played – without Holland.) The refrain was a lengthy horselaugh, the kind of laugh that gets under your skin and makes you want to kill. Now the German team had failed to get to Berlin. As the fans left their television sets and poured out into the streets, some of them spotted us and jeered from the sidewalks. I was tempted to open the window and give them the horselaugh, but fortunately thought better of this and limited my reaction to an ambiguous wave.

This was our first trip with our new navigation system – the TomTom Go 910 – and it was marvelous. We could drive into Hannover at 2:30 in the morning and be guided unfailingly to the front door of the hotel that I had booked on Internet the day before. We soon learned to trust the system above our own instincts and attempts to read the map. It really enhanced our pleasure in the trip not to have to worry about directions. The only deficiency was that Meissen was not in the list of German cities. I think it’s because they converted the toponyms from a German source, where it was spelled with the German character for a double s, a character not recognized by the program they were using. Otherwise the system simply made no mistakes, which I cannot say for myself behind the wheel. I am looking forward to the day when my TomTom is linked to an equally secure automatic pilot.

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