Frankfurt Book Fair in rough waters

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Frankfurt Book Fair

Even though book markets are booming, these are tough times for the Frankfurt Book Fair. For the past five years or so, we are witnessing the leading international rights trading platform shifting to a more diversified consumer event, less and less geared at the actual book and other rights buyers. Fighting slowly but surely shrinking exhibitor numbers and shrinking space, the fair has been able to keep up total attendance numbers, but the professional books and rights traders, who a few years ago still made up 65% of the total, have dropped to a mere 50% of all visitors. For the Frankfurt Book Fair, these trends threaten to eventually reduce it to a time-gone-by myth and to just another book fair among others. High-profile events such as the fair’s inauguration by German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron this year largely passed unnoticed by both professional visitors and the larger public.

Apart from the development of the internet and other information and communication technologies facilitating rights trading beyond the boundaries of book fairs, Frankfurt is also challenged by the emergence and growth of other book fairs, closer to the language markets these are servicing. In Germany, the Leipzig Book Fair, with less than one-third of Frankfurt’s exhibitors, attracts on four days as many visitors as Frankfurt on five. Turin, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the other European book fairs that have outgrown Frankfurt. Paris is catching up. Istanbul and Abu Dhabi cannot be neglected, let alone the Asian, Latin American and even some African book fairs.

Consequently, one of Frankfurt’s survival strategies is to hook up with these fairs and develop joint projects which are to reach further than just exchanging collective booths. One of these projects is the Aldus Network of European book fairs, promoting collaboration in the fields of international events, digital innovation, literature promotion and translation. Three years ago, the Frankfurt Book Fair also became a member of the Asia Pacific Publishers Association.

At the fair itself, a new Booksellers Centre was added to the Booksellers Café, with a stage program presenting issues and trends affecting the bookselling industry. The Arts+ program initiated last year brought together some 50 stands representing museums, galleries, architects, designers, artwork publishers and art dealers, and provided matchmaking spaces for businesses involved in the creative industries. The World of Learning Lab and the Orbanism Space were two new meeting spots for the discussion of digital technologies, which were also at the centre of ‘The Bigger Splash,’ a new networking program held on the last three days of the fair. At the Business Club, established two years ago, a series of conferences and networking events for trade visitors focused on challenges and opportunities created by the UK’s impending Brexit. The Agora lawn between the exhibition halls was used for the installation of three large tents, one as an Open Stage offering entertainment, one for book signing sessions, and one, the Readers Tent, with an extensive authors presentation program.

As to the exhibitors, this year witnessed a surge in collective booths. Fifty independent Latin-American publishers had organized a joint stand. The publishing industries of Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Catalonia, Georgia, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine all had collective presentations, just as much as Bangladesh with a remarkably large booth in addition to the Asian and Middle-Eastern regulars who since many years come to Frankfurt with professionally designed collective stands representing their publishing industries and related service providers. In addition to the close to 300 French publishers exhibiting under the Guest of Honour program, one stand brought together 30 French-language African publishers.

The Indian participants
With a total of 72, the number of exhibitors from India has remained fairly stable, but only a core of 15-20 can be considered Frankfurt-regulars and professionals, mainly in the children’s and scientific books segments and a few service providers, with stands that are reasonably furbished, filled and staffed. This year, there were 54 publishers and distributors from India, 15 service providers including two printers (Replika and Thomson, others perhaps under their UK or US company label), and 2 merchandizing handicraft dealers. FBF’s Fellowship program included one participant from South Asia, Anish Chandy, head of business development and rights at Juggernaut Books.

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The S. Chand Publishing stand at Frankfurt Book Fair 2017

Unfortunately, a majority of Indian exhibitors in Frankfurt still don’t seem to get their act together. The government and publishers associations may not subsidize their presence in Frankfurt, but is that a reason to convey such a bad impression of the Indian industry? The unprecedented number of scandalously shabby, ugly and empty stands this year makes you wonder why they attend this fair at all. Not the least effort to try and stand out from the crowd. This is all the more striking as just a few steps away, stands from other nations could be spotted which were beautifully designed with mostly basic, inexpensive, means. And the behavior in Frankfurt also contrasts with the generally far more professional performance of the Indian scene at the London Book Fair.

Two announcements at FBF that were interesting from the Indian book industry were Nielsen’s Hindi bestseller list, and the organization of IPA’s biennial World Congress in New Delhi next year. The quarterly Hindi books bestseller list is prepared by Nielsen Book India in collaboration with the Dainak Jagran newspaper, which published the first list in August. So far, the list reflects top sales in three categories: adult fiction, adult non-fiction, and books in translation, corresponding to the current political climate in the country. The World Congress of the International Publishers Association in February 2018 will take place in New Delhi, and is to focus on issues such as copyright, censorship, children’s and science publishing, and the empowerment of educational publishers in emerging economies.

The next Frankfurt Book Fair will be held from 10-14 October 2018.