The Frankfurt Book Fair completed is four-day run on Sunday, October 18, and though attendance was expected to dip once again this year amid a sluggish global economy (exact attendance figures were not available at press time), fair organizers and attendees were pleased with the way the show unfolded. Rights dealing was brisk, as reported by agents and publishers, and speakers on the professional program generally expressed confidence in the industry.
Tension marked Frankfurt’s opening, however, with anonymous threats made against the fair for its selection of author Salman Rushdie as the keynote. Journalists covering Rushdie’s speech at the opening press conference had to submit to background checks, searches, and a metal detector screening before being allowed to enter the event, and Rushdie himself was flanked by bodyguards who quickly whisked the author away after a 23-minute talk. Though brief, Rushdie used the occasion to offer a spirited defense of free expression, held to be a bedrock principle of the publishing industry.
“I’ve always thought in a way that we should not need to discuss freedom of speech in the West—that it should be like the air we breathe,” Rushdie said. But he acknowledged that violence requires publishers to remain vigilant. “At this point, publishing begins to feel like a war,” he observed. “And publishers and writers are not warriors. We have no guns, no tanks. But it falls to us to hold the line, not to withdraw from our positions, but to understand that this is a position from which we cannot fall back.”
Rushdie’s appearance was tied to the publication last month of his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. But his presence at the fair apparently reopened some old wounds for the Iranian government, which cancelled its national-exhibit stand days before the fair began, because Frankfurt officials refused to pull Rushdie from the program. Fair director Juergen Boos said he was saddened by the Iranian government’s decision, but that freedom of speech was “not negotiable.” Although the Iranian government withdrew, several Iranian publishers were present at the fair.
Among the highlights of the professional program, Hachette Livre CEO Arnaud Nourry was interviewed on the annual CEO panel and spoke openly on a number of subjects, including the possibility of more acquisitions in the wake of its failed bid last year to purchase Perseus Books Group, the pricing battles over e-books, and tensions with Amazon. Nourry said he was pleased with the agency model and stressed that publishers need to keep control over their pricing. “We have learned from the magazine, music, and press industries that when you lose control of pricing,” he said, “you are basically on your way to death.”
There were plenty of books generating buzz just before and during the fair, and although no single title emerged as the book of the show, one subject that drew lots of attention was books about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the unfolding refugee crisis. Deals were being made about books that dealt with personal stories of refugees who escaped the chaos in the region as well as works that examined the causes of the turmoil.
This year also marked the beginning of a new era for the fair, with the English-language publishers moving from their longtime home in Hall 8, to the middle of the action, in Hall 6. By all accounts, the move went smoothly, and attendees appreciated a more compact fair, with shorter walks to meetings. There seemed to be minimal confusion among fair goers after the first morning.
The Markets, a new prefair conference, also debuted to an estimated 250–300 attendees. The three-track one-day program hosted in the Business Club focused on doing business in seven international regions. And while the presentations were hit or miss, the chance to network was appreciated, attendees said.
Now in its second year, the Frankfurt Business Club also appeared to run more smoothly, with a better meeting space. In addition, a number of new digital companies not big enough to take full stands populated the Business Club, offering demos and making connections. “Frankfurt is the largest book fair in the world, and we needed a stake in the ground for the company launch,” said Neil Balthaser, CEO and founder of the newly minted company Intellogo. “It’s a great place to have everyone together at once, big and small.”