Reflecting of Frankfurt Book Fair 2017


This year’s Frankfurt Book Fair took place on 11th – 15th October.  Arguably, the fair is the publishing industry’s foremost global event.  It’s certainly the world’s largest book fair and attracts exhibitors, rights sellers and visitors from countries across the world.   It began life as a rights fair, but it’s always been about buying and selling actual books (whether in print or electronic format) as much as trading in the intellectual property of their authors. This year, as always, many of the stands were piled high with books or set out like libraries, with shelves packed with books lining the desks and seating areas.  And then there was the perennial gaggle of secondhand booksellers, manning colourful stands outside the main entrance.  

Frankfurt 2017 was opened by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who was accompanied by Emmanuel Macron, the President of France.  He was there because France was this year’s ‘Guest of Honour’ country at the fair, though it’s difficult to believe that there was no subtext behind this joint appearance of the EU’s two foremost politicians.  Merkel said that “the identity of language lives through confrontation with other languages”; Macron was more combative: “We fight for our books and our culture.  Without culture, there is no Europe.”  Neither referred directly to ‘Brexit’, but many of the large contingent of British publishers present admitted that they had wondered whether the UK’s imminent departure from the EU would affect business at Frankfurt – and at least one American publisher went on record actually stating this.  However, by the end of the first day, these fears seem to have been largely dispelled: British publishers were doing as brisk a trade as usual.   

Frankfurt has long been used as a lobbying forum, both for launching new products, technologies and concepts within the publishing industry and for raising the profile of wider international issues.  As it attracts exhibitors from more than 100 countries and upwards of 275,000 visitors, as well as thousands of journalists, it provides a very effective platform for attracting the world’s attention. This year Heinrich Riethmuller, chairman of the Borsenverein, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, used the opening ceremony to make a direct plea to German chancellor Angela Merkel to protect copyright, asking her to “stop the bargain sale of authors rights” and saying the introduction of a controversial new German law – the Copyright Knowledge Society Act (Urheberrechts-Wissensgesellschafts-Gesetz) – “endangers the very existence of publishing houses and booksellers”. The daughter of Gui Minhai, the Hong Kong bookseller and prolific writer who disappeared in October 2015, having been accused by the Chinese state of conducting “illegal business operations”, attended the fair to make an open plea to the US government to try to secure his release.  There was a heated debate on Europe and Islam, featuring best-selling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak (she wowed the London Book Fair three years ago) and Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal.  Indirectly and directly respectively, each of the two latter of these interventions was about galvanising support for free speech and the freedom to publish without censorship. 

Both e-books and Print on Demand technologies were launched on the world at past Frankfurt Book Fairs, and both have continued to enjoy a high profile there ever since.  The present author first examined a POD printer at Frankfurt in 1998.  It stretched from one end to the other of the hall in which it was installed, reminiscent of the kind of apparatus seen at coal-mine pit-heads when they were still operational.  Each visitor was offered a free POD book, which they ordered before they went off to visit other stands while the machine chugged away.  They would return half an hour later to be presented with a flimsy reprint featuring pale grey text, barely discernible ‘sludgy’ illustrations and a very floppy cover.  POD technology has changed beyond recognition since then: now publishers have the confidence to use it for a first printing, as POD-produced books are indistinguishable from traditionally-printed books.  The machines themselves are much smaller, almost silent, and produce quality books in a matter of seconds.

Right from the start, POD embodied a philosophy as well as a process. Some of the earliest debates sought to define the nature of publishing: was it about promoting literature or maintaining a vast inventory?  As POD itself moved from the fringes of the industry to become one of its mainstays, it helped to raise the standing of other, related, initiatives: for example, self-published authors used to be looked down on and accused of ‘vanity publishing’; they certainly didn’t get air-time at Frankfurt.  Now the fair hosts several events for self-published authors, including the International Author and Self-Publishing Programme, a two-and-a-half hour long session which took place on the Friday of the fair and was hosted by Porter Anderson, of Publishing Perspectives.

bookfair hall8

Academic publishers are always prominent at Frankfurt and often make the biggest headline splashes.  Some highlights from this year’s fair included: Taylor & Francis announced that it has bought Dove Medical, an Open Access publisher; three major Chinese education publishers have joined forces to found Innova, an ELT publishing house, which will be based in the UK; Springer stated its intention to co-operate with ResearchGate, the controversial file-sharing site for academics; Pan Macmillan said that it will make e-books available to schools through a partnership with RM Books; and Bertlesmann and Google announced their intention to expand their digital scholarship programme, and said that they will fund 75,000 scholarships through Udacity (the US-based online education provider).

However, it is still the trade publishers who clinch the most spectacular rights deals – sometimes before the fair has even officially started.  At least two debut novels have attracted reputed million-dollar advances:  Whitney Scharer’s The Age of Light, which was bought by Judy Clain at Little, Brown, and If, Then, by Kate Hope Day, acquired in a two-book deal by Andrea Walker at Random House.

The Frankfurt Book Fair opens its doors to the public in its final two days.  Some publishers stay for meetings on the Saturday and Sunday, but most are leaving for home by Friday afternoon.  Asked whether she had ‘had a good fair’, the Sales and Marketing Director of one UK publishing house said “It has been a fruitful but exhausting two days in Frankfurt. I am now at the airport heading home, which is great.”  This is a sentiment that would probably be echoed by thousands as they pack up, though some will already be making plans for next year.  And, of course, next week there will be all this year’s fair’s follow-up work to do!