The 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair wrapped up on Sunday, October 15, and, as of Friday morning (the final professional day before the public descends on the fair), organizers said professional attendance was on track to be slightly above that of last year’s fair. If the final figures bear that out, it will be the third-straight year of rising attendance—a welcome sign of stabilization after a global recession and the digital transition dragged attendance down for years following the 2009 fair.
Stability for the publishing industry was in fact a common theme at this year’s event. With the cloud of digital disruption no longer hanging over the industry, no new boiling disputes with Amazon, print and digital sales finding balance, and business generally good, publishers at the fair expressed something that has been missing in recent years: confidence.
“Book markets have seen growth in most countries—slow but continuous growth,” said Markus Dohle, the Penguin Random House CEO, at the fair’s opening press conference, and he pointed to the now “healthy coexistence” of print and digital markets as a driver of that growth. Dohle noted that print now accounts for 80% of sales and digital accounts for 20%. “Who would have predicted this five years ago?” he asked. “Most people thought it would have been the opposite.”
Stephen Page, CEO of U.K. publisher Faber & Faber, also mentioned the stabilization of the print market, and the lack of fear from previous years that print might be wiped out by digital. “It’s more about the what than about the how,” he said, referring to the importance of content over format.
Speaking at the annual CEO talk, Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy also acknowledged the print renaissance. “E-books have done some pretty remarkable things,” she said. “But e-books are, and always have been, just a format.”
As for the rights trade, Frankfurt officials said this year’s fair set another record, with more than 500 tables booked in the LitAg and some 700 agents on hand.
Among the big deals that dropped at this year’s fair were two celebrity memoirs (one by Cher and one by the Who’s Roger Daltrey). A book about an unusual mother-daughter relationship called Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me, and a book about an interstellar scientist and young widow who finds unexpected solace in a widows support group, The Smallest Lights in the Universe, both sold in seven-figure deals just before the fair. An untitled memoir by a terminally ill lawyer, mother, and wife living in Brooklyn, and a post-Holocaust memoir by Jonathan Safran Foer’s mother, Esther Safran Foer, called I Want You to Know We’re Still Here, also generated buzz at the fair.
The sense of stability noted by publishers was in contrast with the growing political instability around the world, however, and, as expected, politics and world events energized this year’s professional program.
In a keynote address at the fair’s preconference, international agent Andrew Wylie offered a strong defense of diversity in literature and of the importance of international voices in a world that he observed is broadly reassembling along nationalist lines.
“I think that autocrats and autocratic societies are doomed to fail,” Wylie said. “Because the desire politically to enforce a single view of the world is inevitably destined to run afoul of the fact that a diversity of views is what we have.”
In a coup for the Frankfurt Book Fair, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at this year’s opening ceremony. France was this year’s Guest of Honor, and the two leaders spoke of how books, and culture can hold Europe together during a time of rising nationalism.
“There are so many groups trying to spread hatred, fanaticism, and dogmatism, and we have to stand up to that,” Macron said, adding that books and literature—even when the ideas expressed make us uncomfortable—are vital. “This is what holds us together, what prevents us from closing ourselves off, and prevents us from giving way to fear, brutality, and disunity.”
In her remarks, Merkel noted the importance of literature in the political realm, as well as in our cultural lives: “In literature, we see the reflection of the soul of our society, which is based on freedom, and that freedom of expression goes hand-in-glove with political freedom.”