Frankfurt’s Virus-Proof Special Edition

The new normal is neither magical nor palatable

Frankfurt Book Fair Special Edition
Frankfurt Book Fair Special Edition

You can’t judge a book by the cover. – Bo Diddley

For the past twenty years or so, the Frankfurt Book Fair has been obliged to widen its focus from physical books to the content industry’s other segments, including movies and the internet. As a rights trading platform and a significant cultural event, the fair has always reflected the shifts in audiences that the book industry confronts in its intrinsically diverse markets and segments. And yet, once every year, by its sheer size and the concentration of diverse cultural influences, this gathering place of cosmopolitan dimensions casts a magic spell that keeps attracting book professionals as much as their audience. Not only for the business or the string of literary events but also the general atmosphere, the buzz, and the must-be-there experience.

The Frankfurt Book Fair grounds are empty
The Frankfurt Book Fairgrounds are empty

The book industry is perhaps the only industry that is genuinely female-dominated. Frankfurt is female-dominated. I’m not talking about the pretty faces hired to adorn the usual sales events with all due respect. I’m talking about an industry in which women occupy a large part of the key positions in management, creation, editing, research, production, marketing, and sales. With all that women still have to fight for in society, and also in this business, that changes the face of an industry, the flair of such a gathering – the very nature and human aspect of business relationships.

Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, we had none of this – this year. Not even the ‘hybrid’ online solution that was to complement a thinned-out physical gig. Sure, the virtual ‘Special Edition’ kept participants connected. LitAg, Weltempfang, Arts+, Bookfest and most of the fair’s other features had their adapted online version, including interactive real-time sessions with speakers such as Edward Snowden, Margaret Atwood, Leila Slimani, and many others. Professional exchanges included presentations by Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt and HarperCollins India CEO Ananth Padmanabhan.

In the usual collaboration with German TV station ARD, but without a live audience, sixty literary panels were held at the fairgrounds, in the renovated Festhalle building, and broadcast on TV and the internet. A total of 260 hours of masterclasses, conferences, and talks with more than 750 speakers could be followed during live streams or Zoom sessions or on YouTube and various web links that can still be accessed for the next six months. 

But it’s something else to sit and watch behind a computer screen instead of being part of a large international gathering in constant movement, with its informal meetings, networking, business dinners and private parties. If Frankfurt’s Special Edition has shown us one thing, it’s the fact that, eventually, we cannot function without physical interaction. And that we have to refuse the ‘new normal’ trap that some are already trying to make palatable to us. We have to do everything to protect ourselves and others in the age of viral pandemics, but we must find a way to do away with the economic conditions causing their ‘normality.’

The virtual rights platform

The FICCI - FBF Rights Catalogue 2020
The FICCI – FBF Rights Catalogue 2020 for Indian writing

For ‘exhibitors,’ particularly new and small publishers or other international rights traders, the fair’s virtual edition offered an opportunity to be ‘present’ on the digital platform for free, even though their impact may be considered questionable. The online international rights and license trade platform registered more than 4,000 activated seller and buyer accounts with some 31,000 titles on offer, adding to the 400,000 titles already listed on the Frankfurt Rights catalog. (Good luck browsing through the mass!) From India, FICCI, and FBF’s GBO, Delhi had compiled a catalog of 25 new titles by 14 publishers, whereas HarperCollins India, Taylor&Francis India, and others presented their own lists.

The virtual insights

In a ‘Market Insights’ series of 50-minute videos, publishers discussed trends in ten book markets: China, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, USA, UK, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, and Finland. Additional videos dealt with the African book market and focal country, Canada. In a video conference on South Asia, Angela Albert, project director at GBO Delhi, moderated the discussion with publishers from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Their presentations, accessible on YouTube, mainly dealt with their respective experiences during the Covid-pandemic, showing that the various lockdown measures created enormous distribution challenges but also led to increased book sales through the internet. All the speakers have been compelled to intensify using the so-called social media to present and sell their publications.

When we look at the numbers, out of the 7,000 exhibitors signing up for the book fair every year, 800 from 40 countries had reserved a booth by the time the fair’s physical manifestation was canceled in August. For the virus-proof special edition, 4,422 publishers, literary agents, and service providers from 103 countries registered as online exhibitors. On the three trade visitor days, 148,000 users from 183 countries used the fair’s digital offerings. More than 2,000 trade visitors used the curated Matchmaking Tool, which remains available on the FBF website.

Even though the Covid-pandemic has not been fair to the fair, FBF director Jürgen Boos concluded, “In a year in which trade fairs all over the world have been taking place either in a hybrid format or only digitally, we managed to bring the international book industry together for a few days. We wanted to use our offerings to support the digital rights business, serve as a showcase for new titles from numerous countries, and offer networking possibilities for a range of industry experts and publishing professionals. With our live-streamed events taking place at the digital Weltempfang, on the ARD Book Fair stage, and the African Perspectives Symposium organized by Litprom and KfW Stiftung, we reached literature lovers from all over the world.”

The next Frankfurt Book Fair, hopefully back to normal, is to be held 20-24 October 2021. The Canadian book industry will be the Guest of Honor, hopefully in person as well.   

Total visitors275,000278,023286,425285,024302,267
Trade visitors170,169172,296172,084169,067174,477
Trade visitors % of total62%62%60%59%58%

Frankfurt Book Fair Performance 2015-2019 (Source: FBF/IppStar)

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

It is the right time to support our high-impact reporting and authoritative and technical information with some of the best correspondents in the industry. Readers can power Indian Printer and Publisher’s balanced industry journalism and help sustain us by subscribing.

– Naresh Khanna

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