Over the past two decades, broad concerns about the future of books in the digital age have often loomed over the Frankfurt Book Fair, in some years more ominously than others. But recently those concerns have eased, and a sense of confidence and stability has returned to the fair, which is set this year for October 16–20.
“The political situation all over the world is very unstable, and usually our industry tends to reflect what’s happening there, especially if governments are not properly investing in education or in culture,” says Juergen Boos, president and CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair. “But actually, Frankfurt looks very, very stable. I think the book fair is getting more like it used to be, in the late ’80s and the ’90s, when we had the big names and literary events. That feeling is coming back, and it’s bringing more of the purpose behind the books back to Frankfurt. It’s not only about the rights and distribution businesses, it’s a chance to identify the opportunities and major strengths of the industry. That seems to get more and more important each year.”
Publishers, too, are feeling more confident. “Clearly, the physical book never did go away, nor was it ever going to,” noted HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne in his 2018 opening keynote at the Markets, the Frankfurt Book Fair’s annual preconference. Which is not to say the global book business in 2019 is without significant challenges. Though much has been made of print sales stabilizing in recent years, Redmayne also told fairgoers that the resilience of print books is only half the story. “Equally important: I’m not seeing any great resurgence across the market in terms of physical books,” he observed. “In fact, I think the truth is that we have arrested decline.”
That may not be the most inspiring of phrases, “arrested decline,” but it captures the backdrop against which the publishing world heads to Frankfurt. Fairgoers last year spoke of an event with a welcome business-as-usual vibe—Michael Bhaskar, publishing director of U.K.-based Canelo described it as “a mixture of bullish confidence and strange unease.”
Given the heightening political and economic uncertainty around the globe—whether it’s tariffs, trade wars, and the unpredictable policies coming out of the U.S., or the U.K. hurtling chaotically toward an exit from the European Union—attendees of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair would probably sign up for another year of business as usual. Markets hate uncertainty. And in 2019, uncertainty remains a key challenge facing publishers.
But there is also reason for optimism. Digital audio, for example, continues to surge—so much so that this year, audio publishers will have a home of their own at the fair: Frankfurt Audio will offer a new international marketplace for audio content, located in Hall 3.1. The 2019 Global 50 CEO Talk will
feature Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix v-p for international originals, who will address Netflix’s appetite for original international stories and discuss how the company looks to books for its productions and programming. And a new speaker series, dubbed Create Your Revolution, will host talks with what Frankfurt organizers call “global change makers.” Among the speakers announced so far are actress and producer Gina Belafonte, Ethiopian web and mobile technologies developer Betelhem Dessie, and Tea Uglow, creative director for Google’s Creative Lab in Australia.
Of course, the lifeblood of the Frankfurt Book Fair is the rights trade. And this year, the LitAg, where agents and scouts conduct their business, will once again grow. The LitAg will host 347 agencies in 2019 (up from 337 last year) from more than 30 countries, with 90 U.S. agencies signed up and 16 newcomers.
Due to necessary renovations, The LitAg in 2019 will move from Hall 6 to the fairground’s Festhalle, the historic building located near the entrance of the fair grounds. Agents initially objected to the move, noting that it will make getting from meeting to meeting tougher. But Frankfurt’s organizers are hopeful that agents will notice some key improvements.
“The surroundings are a lot nicer—it’s a very high ceiling, and it’s an iconic building,” Boos says. “I know even five minutes can be important for the agents. We were forced into this change, but we tried to see it as an opportunity. We’ve reorganized a few things. And I expect this will turn out to be a good move.”
For details on specific programs, check out the Frankfurt Book Fair website. And you can follow all the action from Frankfurt through PW’s Frankfurt Show Daily, available in print at the show, as well as on the PW website.