The 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair concluded Sunday, October 20, and though final figures for trade visitors won’t be out until this week, attendance is expected to be stable for a fifth straight year—a sign that the fair has found a new normal, despite changes to the event and the political and economic uncertainty hovering over much of the world.
“It seemed like an average year at the fair, neither violently up nor violently down,” said Doug Young, publisher turned agent at London’s PEW Literary, adding that the shadow cast by the last-minute push for a Brexit deal was at the very least impacting the mood of the British contingent.
Adam Freudenheim, publisher and managing director of U.K. indie Pushkin Press, agreed. “We’re worried about the unknown aspect of Brexit, the continued uncertainty,” Freudenheim said. “Whatever happens we just want to see an end to the uncertainty.”
Caroline Michel, CEO at U.K. literary agency Peters, Fraser, and Dunlop, suggested that publishers were perhaps “a little cautious” given the challenging state of world affairs, but pointed to a few bright spots. “Everyone is excited about audio,” she said, and “a renewed focus on nonfiction to explain these turbulent times.”
Ian Chapman, CEO at Simon & Schuster UK, said the fair felt quiet but identified a continued push for world rights as a key theme this year.
“It’s not as frantic as previous fairs, a bit quieter,” observed Peter Strauss, managing director at British agency Rogers, Coleridge and White, “but upbeat overall.”
Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House U.S., said she found the halls “busier and more bustling” than in previous years. “Some of the greatest discoveries in Frankfurt come from those impromptu interactions and happenstance meetings that occur so frequently here in the fair’s halls. These moments and conversations speak to why the Frankfurt Book Fair is so valuable.”
Indeed, Penguin Random House hosted a staff reception at its booth in Hall 6.2 at the end of the fair’s opening day, where PRH CEO Markus Dohle doubled down on a claim he first made in his 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair opening keynote. “This is the best time for publishing since Gutenberg,” he said, celebrating not only Penguin Random House’s success but that of the entire publishing industry—an industry that started the decade on uncertain footing amid a global recession and a digital revolution that some predicted would drag the book business down.
“This is my 26th consecutive Frankfurt Book Fair, and it’s as exciting as my first,” Dohle told PW. “The book business is growing and the importance of books in our culture and society is felt more than ever.”
Among the fair’s highlights, the annual Global 50 CEO talk took an interesting turn this year, venturing outside the publishing industry to feature Kelly Luegenbiehl, v-p of international originals at Netflix, a company that spends in excess of $10 billion on content development annually. “We look at the publishers and editors as partners,” Luegenbiehl said, emphasizing that the company is not a competitor to the book business. “Our goal is to bring books to life on the screen and to life in a way that has not been done before.”
The fair’s opening press conference featured a timely appearance by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who just days before the fair was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, which she learned about while she was on tour in Germany. A last-minute addition to the fair program, Tokarczuk’s appearance also came a day after elections in her native Poland, where the nation’s hard-right nationalist government—which Tokarczuk has strongly opposed—won four more years in power.
“I believe in literature which ties people together, that highlights what people have in common, despite the differences—color, sexual orientation, or anything which may separate us on the surface,” Tokarczuk said. “I believe in a kind of literature which makes clear that, at a deeper level, below the surface, we are tied together through invisible but existing threads. A kind of literature which talks about a lively, ever-changing world of unity, of which we are a small but not insignificant part.”
Meanwhile, the 2019 guest of honor, Norway, brought nearly 100 authors to the fair, including perennial bestsellers Karl Ove Knausgaard and Jo Nesbo, and hosted a robust program. “The Guest of Honor program was one of the most successful ever,” said Frankfurt Book Fair CEO Juergen Boos, who also noted the presence of Booker Prize–winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood at the fair to “whet our appetite for our next guest of honor, Canada.”
Boos added, “This year’s book fair reflected an exciting time of change,” noting that freedom of expression and environmental sustainability were featured in many panels and discussions. “In terms of trends, the new Frankfurt Audio area celebrated one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, with players from Spotify, Storytel, and Audible, among others. And, as always, the rights business is the heart of the book fair.”
Update: In a release, fair officials reported 302,267 total visitors, a "significant" 5.5% jump from the 285,024 who attended in 2018, including a 1.8% increase in professional attendance, and a 9.2% jump in weekend attendance. The number of exhibitors was down slightly to 7,450 from 7,503 in 2018.