For industry members who were debating whether to attend this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, the deciding factor seemed to be the October 7 bombing of Afghanistan. When the fair opened October 10, the American presence was noticeably reduced in Hall 8. Although only about 31 (out of about 800) American exhibitors canceled outright, many booths were empty or undermanned. Traffic was so quiet on October 10 that it caused one exhibitor to say that it felt more like the last day of the fair than the first. (Of course, even before September 11, some companies had decided to cut back to save money.)
One exhibitor after another had stories of colleagues, particularly those with children, who had planned to come but decided to stay home after the bombing began. For example, Shambhala Publications had planned to send five people, but only one, chairman Samuel Bercholz, made the trip. Ingram fairgoers were on the way to the airport when the bombing started, and some of them returned home immediately. Penguin Putnam sent only a skeleton crew, as did most other major American houses. Many attendees reported that they were seeing people who had made appointments in advance, but that many fewer people were making appointments at the fair. As one said, "We're doing respectable amounts of business, but it's a different feeling. Everyone is down."
There were also apparently significant cancellations from the Far East, in part because of concerns about flying Afghanistan is between here and there. Many Italian publishers drove, rather than fly, although that was in part perhaps because of the non-terrorism-related crash at Milan's airport.
By contrast to Hall 8, German-language and some other foreign areas were bustling as usual.
The Big Question
Before the official opening of the fair, approximately 150 people from around the world attended the Big Question Conference designed to explore the future of publishing. E-publishing was a focus throughout, of course, and many e-verities were repeated: e-books and p-books can peacefully coexist; the electronic display and electronic basis of publishing continues to grow; younger people are used to new media and have ever more sophisticated expectations of it; many types of material lend themselves to electronic forms; and the Internet continues to dominate electronic communications.
Gone, however, were predictions that e-books would capture 20% or 50% or more of the market in a year or two. Quoting Niels Bohr, Siemens executive Claus Weyrich, the keynoter, put the new approach best: "Predictions are hard, especially about the future." The problem in part is that some superb technology already exists, but there is no infrastructure. As Mike Shatzkin said, using an analogy that honored a revered product of the host country, "We have a Mercedes Benz, but there are no roads, no gas stations and no people who drive." The other problem is limited investment money in publishing. As PW publisher Fred Ciporen said, "Our future is the next six months. We don't have the resources to think five years down the road."
Part of the value of the conference came in redefining terms and issues. Instead of e-book, for example, think screen. On that basis the use of electronic display of information and texts is widely practiced on computers, PDAs and cell phones as well as e-books. Jerome Rubin, founder of Lexis, discussed the new screens being developed by his company, eInk, that will and here is another irony resemble paper. In two or three years, the new screens will be as flexible as the old standard medium.
Nicholas Clee of the Bookseller noted that disintermediation could take many forms, whether it is publishers selling directly to readers or authors selling directly to readers, for example. Geert Visscher, an agent in the STM world, said that one form of disintermediation authors doing away with publishers occurs because authors are often dissatisfied with their publishers, particularly over copyright issues and the length of time books are kept in print. David Taylor of the U.K.'s Swotbooks, which, as an online text retailer, is a threat to campus booksellers, said that in contrast to the general consensus, the new media is creating more "mediaries" in the book business. Among them: Amazon and Questia. "The usual feeling is for each person to think we don't need the others." The reality is often the opposite.