Frankfurt Book Fair under high tension

People who are right write bad books. – Anton Chechov

Frankfurt Book Fair
According to the Frankfurt Book Fair’s database, the number of exhibitors at the fair also increased, from 4,045 last year to 4,216 this time, mainly due to the 542 from Asia-Pacific, which with an increase of almost 20% is the only region already reaching pre-pandemic levels. Photo IPP

Compared to last year, the Frankfurt Book Fair seems to slowly recover from the pandemic’s dip. Its’ 75th edition on the five days from 18 to 22 October 2023, was attended by 215,000 visitors (2022: 180,000), of whom 105,000 were trade visitors (2022: 93,000). According to the fair’s database, the number of exhibitors at the fair also increased, from 4,045 last year to 4,216 this time, mainly due to the 542 from Asia-Pacific, which with an increase of almost 20% is the only region already reaching pre-pandemic levels.

However, if there is any justification for the fair’s claim of being ‘the international publishing industry’s biggest trade fair’ then it’s not in the number of booths and visitors, but in the amount of international rights deals negotiated and concluded at the fair – a business largely dominated by the European and American publishing conglomerates and their tentacles in other parts of the world.

At this year’s FBF, the Literary Agents & Scouts Centre, LitAg, experienced unprecedented occupancy with 548 working tables, rights professionals from 324 agencies, and over 35,000 entries. Most of these represented agencies from the UK, the US, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia, and China. For the first time, the Publishers Rights Centre, PRC, located right next to the LitAg, was established as an additional space for agents specializing in foreign rights and licensing.

The fair’s international trade program featured several discussion and networking events alongside its training programs. First of all, the Frankfurt Fellowship Program brings publishers, editors, rights managers, and literary agents to Germany to meet their German counterparts and attend the book fair. The Frankfurt Invitation Program enables publishers from what are considered ‘developing’ book markets to participate in the fair with a stand in order to enhance their network.

The Frankfurt International Translators Program has every year up to 15 translators from across the globe participate in a dedicated exchange and networking program. The Paris-Frankfurt Fellowship Program consists of two-week training programs for young booksellers and publishing staff from France and Germany.

In addition, the Special Program Ukraine and Nearby Nations is a recent training and networking program for publishers, editors, rights managers, and agents from Eastern Europe and some of the former Soviet republics. The programs receive financial support from the German Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Cultural Affairs.

Together with the Guest of Honour program, all these features are aimed at increasing the number of translations from those countries into German and inciting publishers worldwide to consider those titles as well. This year’s guest country was Slovenia, and in the program’s run up some 100 titles by Slovenian authors were published in German and other languages. As the second, albeit informal, focal market, the Ukrainian publishing industry received continued support with a 200-square-meter collective booth and a diverse events program in collaboration with the Goethe Institute.

In 1986, the Indian book industry was the first from Asia-Pacific to be invited for the guest program, with a second appearance in 2006. As the Guest of Honour for 2025, the Philippines will be the 5th book publishing market from Asia, after Japan in 1990, Korea in 2005, China in 2009, and Indonesia in 2015.

As to the professional events on the floor, the main issues discussed this year were the book industry’s challenges faced by artificial intelligence, the streaming of audiobooks on Amazon’s Audible platform and Spotify, ‘book-to-screen’ trends, and sustainable book production for small and medium-sized publishers. The annual Frankfurt Rights Meeting was held in a new hybrid format, including four online sessions in September and an in-person fixture on the day prior to the fair, addressing market updates and outlooks specifically geared to literary agents, rights directors, and scouts. The general public had the opportunity to interact with around 500 authors who had made it to Frankfurt from around the world. Among this year’s top attractions were a series of TikTok Stage shows recording FBF’s 75-year history and the introduction of the TikTok Book Awards.

Frankfurt Book Fair
Juergen Boos, director, Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo IPP

But the Frankfurt Book Fair also wants to be a forum for cultural exchange and social debate, while growing ‘more political than ever.’ In the words of its director Juergen Boos, “We are the democracy fair.”

A minor detail

In a press conference prior to the fair, Boos expressed his outrage over the attack by Hamas in Israel on 7 October by saying, “We condemn the terror against Israel,” and announcing that the Frankfurt Book Fair would provide “more voices” to Israeli authors and their publishers. While expressing his sympathy for “everyone in Israel and Palestine suffering because of this war,” there was no word about the 75-year occupation of Palestinian territories – no word, for instance, about the fact that, since Israel’s judicial ‘reform’ in July, prisoners in Israel are not allowed anymore to receive any books. 

Frankfurt Book Fair
Palestinian author Adania Shibli courtesy Hartwig Klappert

No ‘more voices’ for Palestinian authors and publishers either. Instead, Litprom’s award for Palestinian author Adania Shibli for the German translation of her book Minor Detail, which was planned for a public ceremony at the Book Fair on 20 October, was postponed ‘due to the war started by Hamas,’ according to a statement on the Litprom website. As a consequence, the Arab Publishers Association, the Emirates Publishers Association, the Sharjah Book Authority, the Indonesian Publishers Association, Malaysia’s Ministry of Education, and the international women-in-publishing network PublisHer withdrew their participation from this year’s fair.

In an open letter to director Boos dated 14 October, Mohammad Rashad, president of the Arab Publishers Association, writes that his association “would like to express its deep regret for your biased and unjust stance toward the tragic events in the region. The Palestinian people have been living under the longest occupation in modern history, an occupation which has transformed into a system of apartheid that exerts maximum pressure and has made Gaza an open prison for more than 2.2 million people. In addition to that, more than 1,900 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army during the last six days and more than 10% of them are children. We certainly denounce any attack on a civilian from any side, but viewing the case from a single angle and accepting this injustice that the Palestinian people have been subjected to for decades is a big mistake.”

In a statement released by Bodour Al Qasimi, chair of the Sharjah Book Authority and the immediate past president of the International Publishers Association, the decision to withdraw was made after – “FBF’s choice to cancel the voice of an entire demographic by fully supporting Israel, which effectively leaves no space for dialog and cultural exchange.”

To top it all off, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in a keynote at the fair’s opening ceremony, compared Hamas’ attacks to Israel’s settlement policy and suggested Germany had instituted a “ban on analysis” of the conflict. He was then interrupted and heckled. Thereupon, FBF director Boos spontaneously reacted by saying, “It is the freedom of the word,” continuing that “we all agree on condemning inhumanity, in condemning terror. And I think you are all with me on that. And I am glad that we can express it this way here. I am also glad about somebody interrupting a speech. This must be possible. I am glad that we listened to the speech to the very end, even if we may not like it. Even if we condemn it, it is important that we listen to each other.”

In the meantime, security measures at the fair were stepped up, resembling those after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and China’s controversial FBF presence in 2009, with visitors being thoroughly searched at the entrances and security forces patrolling passageways in each and every part of the fair. Perhaps also because the West’s interpretation of ‘freedom of speech’ was to be underlined by several appearances at the fair by Salman Rushdie, who at a public ‘Literature Gala’ in FBF’s vast Harmony Hall on 21 October was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

With 71 exhibitors, the Indian book industry came in full force to FBF’s 75th edition: 41 publishers and distributors, 17 digital service providers, 9 printing houses, one literary agency (Red Ink), and three industry organizations (NBT, Capexil, and the Chennai Book Fair). The other exhibitors from Asia-Pacific included 195 from China, 85 from Hong Kong, 69 from Korea, 43 from Australia and New Zealand, 37 from Japan, 20 from Singapore, 18 from Taiwan, 13 each from Indonesia and the Philippines, and several companies from Vietnam, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Mongolia.

The next Frankfurt Book Fair will take place from 16 to 20 October 2024. Its focal book market will be the Italian book industry.

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