Where it happens

Frankfurt 2021 will not go down as a vintage edition of the great trade show. But its comeback after last year’s curtailment marked a solid return.

That the event took place at all is testament to show director Juergen Boos, his team, and the wider support of the German Börsenverein (the Publishers and Booksellers Association) and the country’s federal government, which gave permission for the show to bring 25,000 through its turnstiles each day. As it happens, FBF 2021 pulled in 36,000 trade visitors from 105 countries and 37,500 private visitors across its five days, and more than 2,000 companies exhibited during the fair, with around 30% of exhibitors deciding to book a stand or workstation in the last fortnight before the fair opened. A “pleasing result”, Boos told our reporter.

Whatever the final analysis on business and attendees, the fair was noticeably quiet. As one exhibitor solemnly noted: “We are here, but is anyone else?” That this was said at 11 a.m. on the first morning tells its own tale—the doors swung open but the crowds did not bustle through. There was also a rustiness to it all, as you’d expect from the long break, with the normal long queues for the facilities replaced by locked doors or shuttered cafés.

Usually, around 300,000 visitors attend the show, but even at 30% capacity the event felt cavernous—the UK contingent situated in a quiet Hall 6.0 adjacent to guest country Canada. Elsewhere, the French and German Halls were much busier, as was the agents’ area.

Most people I spoke to travelled more in hope than expectation, and in part as a show of support, and in that respect were not disappointed either by the levels of business or collective camaraderie that resulted from having made the effort. It was notable too that Penguin Random House chief executive Markus Dohle flew across from the US: he for one wants the show to emerge successfully from this difficult period, and knows it needs a push. Rights trading (or at least the announcement of previously done rights trading) was brisk, and our show Dailies were not short of news but deals done remotely simply indicate a trade that has adapted. It is the deals not done that we need to worry about.

For Frankfurt and the London Book Fair, the most pressing problem is how to bring the big groups back, for without them it is questionable how physical events such as these can maintain their influence over the global trade. Boos’ solution is to imagine more “collective stands—even with the corporates”, which is a fair enough pivot for now but not the long-term win he will eventually require. Neither is it how these competitive groups operate. That said, it is clear that the space race of the past few decades is over. As our Climate Issue (published two weeks ago) showed, there are now other imperatives in play, which in addition to the safety of their staff, will further constrain their activities in the coming months.

The biggest challenge ahead is the obvious one. It is to supplant Zoom as the room where once again it happens.