The book fair is under threat, goes the received wisdom: in these financially straitened, digitally challenged times, publishers are cutting down on their stand size and reducing the number of people attending trade events.
This is the second year of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New Fair Concept, which included the massive logistical move of shutting Hall 8 to bring Anglophone publishers in with their global publishing colleagues in Halls 5 and 6. FBF stressed that the rejig of the fair layout was about facilitating more international conversations and breaking down barriers. Many observers, however, assumed that it was a recalibration, with FBF preparing itself for a smaller, leaner fair in future.
It did not work out that way. In fact, quite the opposite. FBF smashed its visitor numbers target last year and it’s all going swimmingly thus far in 2016. “Once again we have a record year in the LitAg [agents’ centre]. Overall, we are 17% up on last year’s numbers for trade visitors,” says FBF director Jürgen Boos. “To be honest, I can’t really explain it. But we will analyse it after the fair.”
Partially, the rise in numbers is part of the global publishing crop rotation. If one market becomes fallow, new ones rise in other areas. But that is not necessarily the case in 2016, Boos says. “Yes, we are seeing growth in some of those emerging publishing markets, which has been a trend for the past few years—Eastern Europe and South East Asia are particularly strong. But there is growth in some of the more mature European markets. Italy has been down for years as, of course, it has been going through very difficult times. But it is really strong this year, up 28%. Something is going on in Europe.”
There has been a concerted effort this year to ramp up the children’s areas in Halls 5.1 and 6.1, with new kids-specific entrances. Boos says: “We want to make [children’s] more visible. It’s a growing area for us because it’s a growing market internationally. There are so many new players coming in to the sector, and we have to reflect that.”
The fair and the Man Booker Prize will also link up for the first time, with several events at the Messe on the first day of the fair (19th October), including Boos in conversation with the Booker’s literary director Gaby Wood. Boos says he is “hugely pleased” that the prize has a presence. “The world has a lot of literary awards; in Germany alone I think there are hundreds,” he says. “Which is wonderful. But there are just a handful of prizes that everyone sits up and takes notice of. The Booker is one.”
FBF has expanded its politically themed Weltempfang seminar stream— the term can refer to a short-wave radio, but a literal translation might be “worldwide reception”. Though a large part of the programme is consumer- facing, much of it has relevance to post-Brexit British publishers, because the main theme this year is Europe. “I think the EU will be talked about on the seminar stages almost as much as it will be discussed by British publishers in the halls,” Boos says.
Last year’s Weltempfang caused a bit of business damage, with some Iranian publishers abandoning FBF after Salman Rushdie was announced as the programme’s opener. Boos says FBF will plough on with edgy events regardless. “It’s 2016 and I think the climate for freedom of expression, the freedom to publish, is getting worse, not better,” he says. “People have been building up new barriers [to free speech]. There seems to be a lot more conservative regimes constraining free speech. But FBF has this gift, this platform, that can promote it. And we have to use it.”