A fine buchmesse

At one of the digital seminars that now pepper the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the speakers addressed the elephant in the room: that the thousands of publishers and agents attending the Frankfurt Book Fair are going about matters just as they ever have done.

Print books are being displayed, authors fêted, rights sold, catalogues rifled through, show dailies absorbed, cocktails shaken, beer drunk. As Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House, suggested at his c.e.o. panel, the buzz is all digital, but the business is still dominated by physical books.

If that gives the impression that one is tangential to the other, that would be wrong. Look a little deeper and you’ll see a world that is radically changed, and changing. It is a mark (perhaps an irony) of how publishing has adapted to digital that the deals at this year’s fair are being part-fuelled by the earnings of successful digital transition. Print decline and digital growth has actually made trade publishing more efficient, more cash generative, in recent years.

We should enjoy this while it lasts. There are dark clouds. This year hasn’t been a vintage year for publishers, either in print or digital—so far. The print decline has not been arrested, and though Books are My Bag has changed the conversation around bookshops, few would wager that there will be more high street bookshops by the end of this decade than at its beginning.

As for digital, there is talk of the trade “treading water”. E-book sales are plateauing, but no one thinks this is because consumers are becoming less digital. The competitive environment is tough and it has broadened. As Dohle remarked: “We want customers to choose books in the future, not Netflix”. It is to be hoped that Dohle is able to keep to his word, and not allow the machinations of merger to distract either Penguin or Random House from advancing.

In a letter to Financial Times journalists about the recent changes in that newspaper’s approach and philosophy, FT editor Lionel Barber wrote: “This is no time to stand still . . . The pace of change, driven by technology, is relentless.” Publishers should take note. Books are at the fore of Frankfurt 2013 as they should be. It’s job well done, but only half done.