Frankfurt looks to bounce back in person

Frankfurt looks to bounce back in person


While some hardy folk will make the trek to the Frankfurt Book Fair this year—including this intrepid reporter—the bulk will come from continental Europe and there will not be a huge contingent from Britain or the wider Anglophone world. Although there will be more English speakers than there might have been in this second year of the pandemic, as a number of North Americans will be on the ground to celebrate Canada’s second crack at being the FBF Guest of Honour. 

There also will be more British attendees than we thought we would have a month or two ago. Though many UK publishers and agencies announced at the end of the summer that they would not take stands, an increasing number of individuals from those firms—particularly in foreign rights teams—have indicated they will be at the Messe. Over the next three weeks there may be quite a few other trade professionals taking last-minute decisions to hop on a plane to “Manhattan am Main” because the nature of the beast is that the more people there are at FBF, the more reason there is to go. (At least from a business point of view; as bigger crowds may increase your odds of contracting a Covid variant.) 

That there is the will of some to go to FBF 2021 augurs well for the future of the “in real life” book fair at a time when more than a few have questioned the viability of its business model in the post-Covid—or worse, a constant Covid—world. With video conferencing platforms we now “don’t need” the fairs, the argument goes. Although, every advancement of communication technology seems to have someone prophesising the death of the book fair. John Murray III was probably urged to skip Frankfurt 1840, for why travel all that way when we now have the telegraph? These arguments become more insistent when external forces bring disruption to the usual working of book fair crop rotation. I remember being told by a fervid and unnervingly unblinking futurist, after Eyjafjallajökull put paid to London Book Fair 2010, that virtual world Second Life would replace book fairs within a decade. Do you all remember Second Life?

There may be something in the technology argument this time around if we are talking about the main business of book fairs: rights trading. This hasn’t been a one-off Icelandic volcano eruption knocking one fair on its ear, but a sustained two years (and counting) of disruption. Most agencies and publishers have told The Bookseller that barring those first unpredictable months of the pandemic in 2020, rights trading has proceeded apace. What rights are selling, though, is a different matter. Across the world, it seems publishers are looking to acquire safer bets, which may mean a tougher time for first-time writers and more experimental fare. At any rate, in this year’s agent’s hotlists there are 34 début fiction or children’s books, some 15% down from the number in the two pre-pandemic FBF hotlists of 2018 and 2019. 

Mulcahy Sweeney director Sallyanne Sweeney notes (pp08–09) that a benefit of Zoom meetings replacing some of the 30-minute back-to-backs at fairs means a title is given a lot more time to sell internationally. Yet she also says it is difficult to replace those serendipitous meetings at fairs that often prove more fruitful than all your scheduled ones combined. That’s the rub—and it’s why people will keep returning when it is safe and reasonable to do so: to experience those intangible benefits you can’t replicate online.

But will they come in droves? There has undoubtedly been some cost analysis during the pandemic and while, say, Penguin Random House will (health and safety willing) be at 2022’s major fairs, it is undoubtedly looking hard at the number of people they send, for how many days and the size of their stands. All of which will impact book fair organisations’ bottom lines. 

If I were to hazard a guess, the fair that will come out of the pandemic best will be Frankfurt. As the scout Daniela Schlingmann rightly points out in our Lead Story, FBF is not just for professionals but is a Germany-wide, arguably European-wide, cultural behemoth. When France was the Guest of Honour in 2017, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were the star turns at the opening ceremony. When most fairs introduce a featured country, they are lucky if the culture minister shows up. Not that FBF will emerge unscathed or unchanged by the pandemic—it has already had a massive cost-cutting restructure—but it may not to have to work as hard to get exhibitors back into its halls as its competitors.

Photography: Marc Jacquemin.

Correction: In the hotlist entry for Eithne Shortall's It Could Never Happen Here (Lutyens & Rubinstein), Putnam is the US option publisher.