At the beginning of a standing-room-only Frankfurt Book Fair discussion, Richard Mollet, CEO of the U.K. Publishers Association, said he imagined there was a day 100 or more years ago at a book fair when, after yet another panel on how electricity was going to revolutionize the business, an attendee thought: enough already with the electricity talk. It’s here, it is a fact of life. The same is true for digital in publishing, he said: “Digital is no longer something which is in its infancy, to be cooed over and admired and tickled under the chin. It is in the voting and drinking stages of early adulthood.”
The maturation of digital was certainly on display at a busy 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, where this year’s professional program reflected an important leap forward. In just a few years, the program has gone from big, hazy, philosophical talks and panels that could only predict and imagine the impact of a digital future, to one focused on fundamentals, from nuts-and-bolts workshops and best practices to a coming together of new media ventures. In 2012, the futurism of past fairs took a backseat to knowledge, with a slate of programming on everything from EPub3 to HTML5, metadata, licensing, digital marketing, merchandising, and other topics. Still a vibrant rights exchange, the Frankfurt Book Fair has become a knowledge exchange as well.
“I think what has happened in the past three years is that digital is now part of every publishing house, small or big,” said Holger Volland, head of the Frankfurt Academy and the man responsible for the new conferences and creative programs at the fair. “I think until last year, the main feeling was that people were afraid of a future that was completely technical and afraid that the beauty of their books was going to vanish in that technical world. That has changed completely.” In fact, many companies used this year’s fair to announce digital initiatives to the world publishing community. One of the most buzzed about topics at Frankfurt was the Beagle, a new, inexpensive reading device from German e-book bookseller Txtr that, by synching the Beagle to smartphones, aims to get mobile phone carriers more involved in the digital reading business.
In a digital age when some have questioned the future of book fairs, Frankfurt’s embrace of and investment in digital and cross-media has proven a shrewd, successful strategy. “We now have so many new companies here who may not have identified themselves as publishers, but who sell, produce, or do something with content,” Volland said. “For example, take the app developers. The moment an app meets content, it is a publishing project, I believe. So we wanted to attract these people and make sure they are part of the bigger publishing scene.”
Preliminary figures put attendance for the first three days of the show at 148,548, down about 1%, something organizers said was due at least in part to the financial crisis in much of the euro zone. Attendance at the Frankfurt Academy conferences and events, including Storydrive and the 14 workshops and four seminars, was up a healthy 10% over last year. Perhaps most impressively, the traffic in the rights center and deal volume have also surged, with the number of registered agents up by 18%. The days of blockbuster deals may be dwindling, but in the digital age, rights remains the core of the fair’s business, and business was good.
“It’s our second year at Frankfurt,” said David Steinberger, CEO of Comixology, the dominant digital comics vendor in the U.S. “Our first year at Frankfurt was mostly fact-finding, but this year is a pleasure compared to the beginning. People know us now and we can get meetings. Digital vendors in other countries are eager to get readers and publishers are eager to talk to us.” At a Sparks Stage conversation with host Mark Dressler, Steinberger emphasized that his company now sells digital comics in 225 countries and that 50% of the people signed up on Comixology are from outside the U.S.
It’s not all about the digital, of course; Frankfurt has also extended a hand to small independent literary publishers, offering them free booth space this year, as well as helping to set up workshops in New York before the fair to offer advice to the new attendees on how to buy and sell international rights. CLMP’s Jeffery Lependorf said he appreciated the fair’s work. “Even if they aren’t buying or selling, small press publishers are part of a world community of readers who care about certain kinds of publishers,” he said. “Because of the help provided to CLMP by the Frankfurt Book Fair, we’re creating a world community of supportive independent publishers.”