Appropriately, the story of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair cannot be told in one voice. There was the business and the conspiracies; the personal and the political; the booze and the books. Whatever your perspective, it was a noisy and important fair, and in some ways pivotal.
Like London and Bologna, trade fairs are now built around the deals, with that scramble for content the pre-eminent activity. It wasn’t always like this: for much of this decade the conversation about the sector drowned out the agenting, as first Google, then others, pressed their digital agendas. But the book bit of the books business is no longer being disrupted, and if you are not here to talk about books, you can feel superfluous.
That the deal-making remains strong does not mean that the deal-makers are without their concerns. The intervention on Brexit by Simon & Schuster's always quotable chief executive Carolyn Reidy was telling: everyone knows that after the UK exits, Europe becomes a target market for US publishers, but few will admit to it, or work through the consequences. As Reidy acknowledged, there are other strong arguments why British publishers can continue to petition for European rights, but her main thrust was correct, the old case put forward by UK publishers - that as part of an open market British publishers can only protect their home territory by securing Europe - is dead. Agents are right to be resistant, but they are also pragmatic. A battle over Europe may not be a bad thing for them.
Of greater consequence was the charge, doing the rounds, that Amazon had shifted its approach to territories, with the launch of its global store - whereby consumers can import certain goods from Amazon sites - feared to be part of a push to sell books (and other products) based on price, regardless of their provenance. The move, though denied by Amazon, would be of particular concern for markets such as Australia, where books are relatively highly priced, compared with, say, distant neighbours such as India. At the fair, agent Andrew Wylie described the push for global rights by the big publishers as“bewildering”, but in a global marketplace the control over price and availability will be key. One publisher told me they had pulped UK editions after failing to stop them being sold - cheaply - in the US.
There was also the political, with Frankfurt, like the Gothenburg Book Fair, criticised for allowing right-leaning publishers to exhibit. The dilemma is fundamental: should a rights fair take sides? Frankfurt thinks not.
Somehow this all fits: books are about the world we occupy and that world is changing swiftly. This safe space we inhabit may now have become less secure. The book is fine, the business may be in the bardo.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.