Despite some crankiness about changes made to lure more of the German public to the 55th Frankfurt Book Fair, held October 8—13, American publishers survived, and while some major houses cut back their representation, others reported having a strong fair and said they were considering bringing more people next year. While traffic seemed slower to some exhibitors, others said they did more business. One American buyer for a retail chain commented, "Perhaps adversity breeds creativity. We've seen so much more creative product this year, even compared to last year."
Activity in the agents' center, still on the top floor of Hall 6 but in a setting much improved from last year, with carpeted floors and much clearer signage, was slow at first but gathered speed as the fair progressed. "It's certainly been better than the past two years," said one international agent who is a veteran of such occasions. "Nothing huge, but nice steady business." There were still some complaints about the comparative remoteness of the location, but much more approval than before of the physical surroundings—"almost luxurious," said one agent. The only common complaint was that the food-and-coffee service was inadequate for such large numbers, resulting in long lines and delays.
In fact, the biggest book at the fair was as much a giant media event as book project. GOAT, Benedikt Taschen's Muhammad Ali tribute (the acronym stands for Greatest of All Time). The publisher brought the champ himself in on Thursday to stand in a boxing ring constructed on the show floor to promote what, at either 3,000 or 7,5000 euros (about $3,500 or $9,000; the pricier version will be signed by Ali and packaged with a sculpture), may also be called Priciest of All Time. (Ali's appearance marked his second round at a Frankfurt; in 1975, he caused almost as much of a stir when touting The Greatest.) A spokesman at the booth said that Taschen has plenty of interest worldwide for the largely photographic tribute (a heavyweight at 70 lbs.) and will make it available via the Taschen site and as a special order at many stores. The company will also take its promotion, and possibly even Ali, to consumer fairs in the U.S. such as the Miami Book Fair. About 10,000 copies will be printed (1,000 for the high-end edition).
Otherwise, there was no big book in the traditional sense, so most of the gossip swirled around a proposal from Woody Allen that had been circulated by ICM just before the fair began. Harper in the U.K. was said to have laid out $1 million plus, and there were good-sized sales in Germany and Italy, but at press time U.S. rights were still up in the air, with the Riverhead imprint at Penguin Putnam said to be the chief contender at around $3 million; the question was whether Allen, who sees this purely as a fund-raising venture, was going to be sufficiently satisfied with the total take to go ahead and write the book.
The usual International Rights Directors session just before the fair opening, on October 7, featured speakers from the French and German markets, both of whom stressed the comparative fragility of their current situations, with both countries facing major uncertainty—the prospect of Bertelsmann and Bonnier dividing up Ullstein/Heyne/List in Germany, and the standoff between Hachette and Vivendi in France.
Arnulf Conradi at Berlin Verlag said German publishing had made a number of mistakes, hiring "too many people in the good times, who are then difficult to fire." Germany, he said, was still suffering from a "surplus of supply and a lack of demand" in books, resulting in "awful returns" over the past three years. Two hundred bookstores closed in the past year, and titles, both fiction and nonfiction, were down 7% in the same period. He thought that Germany was probably now at the low point of a steady decline in advances for Anglo-American rights after an earlier inflation. Still, foreign translations were still "vital—only 10% of the business, but their impact is huge."
Claude Cherki, publisher at France's Editions de Seuil, also described a domestic market in decline, though the number of titles published had actually increased over the past few years—"a dangerous trend." With the situation regarding the country's two leading publishers—whose amalgamation would lead to a remarkable degree of market domination—still in flux, it is difficult for other publishers to make their plans. Translations were as important as in Germany, with those from the English outnumbering those from neighboring Germany and Italy combined. As an agent, Corinne Marotte of Paris's Michelle Lapautre agency described a business where fiction is dominant among translations, and where advances are much lower than in some other countries, especially Germany. Printings have declined sharply in recent years.
While little felt different on the floor or in the rights center, some murmured about the slower rights activity, particularly in Germany, where, as one insider noted, "the fattest international market has gone on the Atkins diet." One agent said the "usual lunacy [of heavy meetings] is present, but there's no question: there isn't as much sales." Still, in wrapping up after the fair, PW still noted several German sales that were, if not on the former lavish scale, at least larger than those to any other market.
This year's Frankfurt brought the foreign publishers of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and South America successfully into the mainstream, at least physically. They were well distributed among the European countries, mostly in Halls 3 and 6, with the Arab world one aisle from the Parisians and Japan just next door to the Dutch. The large South Korean group stand stayed nearly empty, as the attendees were all out buying rights. In recent years, the popularity of the Internet in Korea has boosted the demand for international ideas, making this country a major buyer of rights worldwide. Partially in acknowledgement of Korea's increasing heft, the country will be the Guest of Honor at Frankfurt in 2005.
Former Taiwan agent now hot-shot book publisher, Joyce Yen of Ars Longa Press, gave PW several examples of mainland Chinese authors coming to her to publish their books, rather than face politically correct editing of their work in the P.R.C. One recent example: Living History by Hillary Clinton, which was published in a sanitized version. Neither Clinton nor her U.S. publisher, Simon & Schuster, knew about the changes before the book's appearance in Chinese bookstores.
Huang Youyi, vice-president of China's powerful China International Publishing Group, blames that particular confrontation on the Chinese publisher's lack of international experience. Huang, one of the first Chinese publishers to study in the U.S. and U.K., told PW: "The problems the Clinton book had would never happen with our group. Most books in China aren't having trouble with the government, and the more sophisticated publishers understand and accept the standards of their international partners in translation rights. This was a regrettable confrontation."
A Two-Hour Bout
The late opening on Friday night—to allow the German public a jump on the weekend, when they are traditionally allowed into the fair—did not result in the imagined swarm of people intent on clipping books. In fact, hardly anyone came—to steal books or otherwise—and fair organizers called the "experiment" a failure and indicated it would likely not be repeated. Still, in the days beforehand, it had become controversial enough to require an impromptu meeting between fair director Volker Neumann and heads of U.S., U.K. and Canadian publishers associations as well as the head of the International Publishers Association.
"It's not about two hours. It's about the feeling that this is an early symptom of changes to come," said one of the participants at the meeting, adding, "We're all for an experiment. We just don't want to be guinea pigs."
For his part, Neumann emphasized that while many changes were made this year to bolster the consumer side of the fair, management has also made major investments in the trade side, for example, fixing up the agents center so much that for some it went from being a dreary, out-of-the-way spot to an attractive, out-of-the-way retreat. In addition, for those who signed up for next year before the fair ended (and signed a three-year contract) the cost to exhibit will fall as much as 12% next year. Fair management also noted that hotels have agreed not to increase rates next year and, in most cases, to reduce the nasty minimum-stay requirement from six to three or four nights. (Past hotel "agreements" have proved as reliable as an American cell phone in Frankfurt, so this benefit may disconnect by next October.)
Neumann also emphasized that "the fair represents a unique opportunity to market books." For instance, he asserted, all publishers should take advantage of the 10,000 accredited journalists from 80 countries who attend the fair.
Insiders at the fair were somewhat mystified by English-language publisher concerns about the hours issue. One noted that just as the rights section of the fair is facing increasing pressure from London, the consumer side of the fair has to deal with competition from Leipzig, whose book fair has a strong consumer focus.
Side Shows, Main Shows
Neumann, who says he is eager to put his mark on the fair because, at 61, he probably won't stay for more than four or five years, instituted a myriad of changes this year, including forums on a variety of subjects scattered in several halls, a new translators center, and cultural panel discussions celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty between France and Germany.
But unlike previous years, many of the new events were fun. On Friday night, Wladimir Kaminer, the popular Russian-born author who lives in Berlin, staged a Russendisko (Russian disco), which drew an estimated 4,000 people. (Kaminer's latest bestseller is also called Russendisko.) The next night, Nobel laureate Guenter Grass read from his latest work, Letzte Taenze (Last Dances), signed his book—and danced at an event that drew nearly 2,000.
A common theme for some events was record-breaking. Paulo Coelho signed copies of his Alchemist in 56 languages, and some 500 people contributed to make the world's longest comic.
On a more serious note, Susan Sontag accepted the Peace Prize, awarded by the Boersenverein, the German publishers, wholesalers and booksellers association. At a press conference Saturday, she acknowledged that she probably benefited from her critical stance toward the Bush administration and its Iraq policy but added, "I'm modest enough to think that even if I hadn't spoken out about Bush, I would have gotten the prize."
As usual, the German halls were bustling. At the booth for Bertelsmann's Der Club, for instance, a planned event for German celebrity Dieter Bohlen attracted so much interest that it was moved to a new wing and wound up bringing in as many German reporters as, well, the last Bohlen event (200 by one official estimate). Bohlen's first tell-all, published a year ago, was a huge bestseller. This new installment includes tales about other celebrities, who are protected by Germany's liberal "personality rights" law. Bertelsmann seemed to take the resulting injunctions as a marketing opportunity; employees inked over the offending passages the night before the fair and highlighted the books in a glass case.
Russia was the guest country this year, drawing more than the usual amount of interest in Frankfurt and around the country. (At least one of the many newspaper articles about Russia and the fair began, "The Russians are coming...but this time with books.") Although Russian president Vladimir Putin decided ultimately to stay home, more than 200 Russian publishers and 100 writers were in attendance. The cultural program featured art exhibits, concerts, readings and other events that started months before the fair. Altogether, the "Year of Russia" in Germany offered up some 700 events. "The Arab countries" will be the guest country next year.
Fair organizers indicated that more changes and additions will be likely next year. The fair may move the agents center to a site closer to Hall 8, home of English-language publishers. One possibility is a floor in Hall 9, across an atrium from Hall 8, which, joked Neumann, could be called "Hall 8-plus." In several years, at the latest 2007, Hall 8 will be rebuilt—between fairs—so that it will have a second floor. Next year, the film & TV area, new this year, will be expanded and include an emphasis on script- and screenwriters and space for film and TV rights agents. Among changes contemplated for 2004: wi-fi in Hall 8, a new librarians center and ending the fair on Sunday instead of Monday.
—With additional reporting by Sally Taylor and Steven Zeitchik