Book fairs and why they matter

26 October 2008

I’ve been back from Frankfurt for a couple of weeks or so but only now has there been time to breathe … and think. It’s been a busy time, and the follow-up has only just started. Hopefully all the loose ends will be tied up by Christmas.

Frankfurt is more than a city in Germany; ‘Frankfurt’ is insider talk for the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s biggest publishing trade fair. (The city also hosts many other fairs, about one a week, including the world’s biggest motor show and the largest fairs for plant engineering, consumer goods, etc. Some of these events are bigger than the book fair but that’s not something publishers even think about.)

Frankfurt is big

Held in October each year, the Frankfurt Book Fair runs from Wednesday through to Sunday with an extra day each end for exhibitors to set up and tear down their stands. Entry on Wednesday to Friday is restricted to book-world professionals (publishers; printers, shippers and other suppliers; librarians; booksellers; even authors) but in the weekend the doors are opened to the general public who come streaming in (78,218 on the Saturday alone).

The ‘Messe’ is held at the same place each year, a huge exhibition site within walking distance of Frankfurt’s central railway station. The book fair is crammed into five massive exhibition halls, most of them multi-level. Each is a mini city of aisles and exhibitor booths (over 7,000 in total), many small but some great sculptured adverts to the prestige (or ego) of their exhibitor.

This year the book fair celebrated its 50th anniversary. Supposedly, it was the biggest and most successful fair yet though personally I don’t feel it is as crammed and hectic as it was before the 911 attack seven years ago. Maybe the aisles have got wider? (I certainly haven’t got thinner.)

Anyway, essentially the fair is speed dating writ large. Everyone has appointment diaries broken into half-hour blocks and many people will have reasonably full diaries (on the Thursday, for instance, we had ten meetings, some of them an hour long but most just 30 minutes). Imagine the congestion each half hour, then, as about 20,000 people rush from one meeting to another, often having to move between halls.

Not the only book fair

Frankfurt is the world’s biggest book fair but by no means the only one. There are indeed upwards of 100 book fairs taking place round the world each year. Typically, many are local and focus their attention not just on booksellers but on book lovers, too. This is the case in Copenhagen, where I live.

What distinguishes Frankfurt is that it is mainly a trade fair; for many exhibitors the hordes of book lovers (and shop-lifters) in the weekend are an irritating distraction. I suspect its pre-eminence lies in it dominating the (northern-hemisphere) autumn publishing season. Its main rivals – the London Book Fair, Bologna (for children’s publishing) and Book Expo America – are all spring fairs.

What actually happens?

Frankfurt is an event where the book world comes together and does business. It is a marketplace but much more:

  • It is a key venue where book rights are sold. Here a North American co-edition of your book may be offered or world rights sold to publish the latest Harry Potter book in Greek. While the new Dan Brown may be auctioned for a ridiculously high figure, most of the deals are quite ordinary and involve much smaller sums.
  • It is a giant shop window, one of the few places where publishers are able to showcase their list and hope to tempt booksellers and librarians to buy their titles.
  • It is a shop window, too, for countries. This year’s guest of honour was Turkey (though for a while earlier this year it looked as if German politics would scupper this). Next year it’s China but in a world economy where all things Chinese may no longer be quite so attractive.
  • Even in these days of e-mail and other forms of fast communication, Frankfurt is a crucial meeting point. Not only do publishers meet but also other players in the book world. Here a publisher complains to her distributor about sales in Turkey, there a footsore Indian printer tries once again to tout for business, and over in the coffee bar a literary agent consoles one of her authors whose books no longer seem to be of interest.
  • The fair is a classroom where publishers can keep up with developments (this year the big theme was digitization) though all too often what is on offer at the seminars is thinly disguised sales talk by suppliers of a ‘publishing solution’.
  • This, too, is a place where authors may get to strut their stuff. Most of them are worthy German literati whom I’ve never heard of but I do remember years ago bumping into Boris Yeltsin looking tired and out of place.

Six reasons why book fairs matter to you

OK, so why should the biggest international book fair – indeed any book fair – matter to you? Because, as described above, it is a place where much happens that will affect the lives of authors and readers.

If you are an author, then chances are that your book will have been affected by something or other happening at the fair. You may never hear about it and the effect may not be obvious but book fairs like Frankfurt matter, nonetheless.

  • Your book was going to be printed just outside Hong Kong but costs are ballooning for Chinese labour and shipping while US pre-orders for your book are lower than expected; now printing for the US market will be in upstate New York using new digital technologies.
  • The main bookseller in your study area is to buy lots of copies of your book (printed locally at a special price) and really promote it, copies piled high at the front of all of their bookshops.
  • A special Australian paperback edition of your book has also been agreed to.
  • Amazon’s information about your book is wrong, probably because they get this directly from the printed catalogue of your publisher’s US distributor. Now errors should be a thing of the past with your publisher agreeing to subscribe to a new, centralized system for transmitting bibliographic data.
  • Because its appeal is broad enough, your previous book will also be published in German and Italian; a French buyer is also likely but the Chinese publisher who showed such early enthusiasm is now nervous about the effects of the credit crunch.
  • This book and all of your publisher’s other titles are to be digitized and sold as e-books by mid-2010.

And a few real examples

The above reasons don’t apply to any book that I know but they are valid. However, to give you a flavour of how books are affected by book fairs like Frankfurt, here are a few instances of real matters I was involved in at Frankfurt this year.

  • One book that NIAS is about to publish could do quite well in the country it studies. But how to make a book sell more than merely ‘OK’? We discussed this with our distributor’s local agent.
  • Meantime another new book could do very well in its focal country – but it could also be banned or attacked in the courts for upsetting the local powers-that-be. This was a delicate case because people were very careful what they said but we ended up with reasonably clear idea of the situation and with ideas how to respond if things turn sour.
  • In some markets our books are selling well, in others less so. For one big market especially we met with booksellers and others working in the book trade there to understand what was happening and to formulate a strategy to improve sales.
  • If a book sells very well, chances are it will need to be reprinted. Our problem is that we print in Asia but all too often the reprints are needed in the US or Europe but there are not enough orders for a full reprint in Asia to be economic. Shipping charges are horrendous, too. I spent quite a lot of time exploring the alternatives here. Finding a solution is now urgent; authors hate hearing that people cannot buy their books.
  • One of our recent books is about pirates, real pirates of the skull-and-crossbones type. I sniffed around the national stands of a few countries with a strong maritime background looking for publishers who might be interested to publish the book in their language. No luck this time.
  • Recently, an author approached us with a book proposal. He wants something out fast as he’s up for tenure at a US university but doesn’t seem to realize that this means getting published by a reputable American press; even a quality European press like NIAS Press just won’t do. Normally it would be much too early to do this (because we haven’t yet seen or reviewed the manuscript) but as the proposal and sample were good I aired the idea of co-publication at meetings with a couple of US presses, just to test the water. Interest was expressed; there’s something I can build on later.
  • Indeed, one of the books we published last year was co-published with such a US university press, someone we hadn’t worked with before. One part of my meeting with them this year was simply to make sure that things had gone well as far as they were concerned. It had, and we moved on to discuss a new joint project.
  • While the focus of any book fair is on new books, there is growing interest to give new life to older titles by digitizing them. They are then republished as e-books (even e-chapters). I had several meetings and also attended seminars exploring this issue. The result is that by Christmas we shall have digitized a fair chunk of our books, many more following next year.

No wonder I feel rather pressed at present!