In an interview with Publishers Weekly hosted and broadcast by the Publishers Without Borders Facebook channel, Frankfurt Book Fair director Juergen Boos said that the fair will go on, but it will be a "completely different" experience. "Our world has changed and it will never go back to what it was before," he said, noting that the fair is looking at ways of combining both real world and virtual experiences to provide an event that will be valuable "not only to those who have come to the fair in the past, but maybe even have never been to Frankfurt before."
Boos said the earliest the fair, set to run October 14-18, will make an official announcement about changes will be early June, but at least within "four to six weeks."
Among the key revelations of his conversation was that the book fair is likely to split off the consumer-facing side that caters to the public from the international trade event. The 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair had 302,267 total visitors; of those 127,790 were members of the public, and 174,477 were trade visitors.
"I just don't see everybody coming to Frankfurt this year — for some, it might not even be possible," Boos acknowledged, pointing to such issues as possible travel restrictions and concerns over a second wave of Covid-19 infections that some expect to happen in the fall.
Still, should there be a smaller number of overseas visitors to the fair, the immediate impact may be limited: just 2.1% of attendees last year came from the Americas, 4.8% from Asia, and 22% from Europe outside Germany, with 70.6% coming from Germany itself.
In order to accommodate necessary social distancing measures for trade visitors, Boos said the the fair intends to use as much of the fairgrounds as necessary, including spreading into new halls, as well as using more venues in the city itself. He also said the fair was looking at ways to re-imagine what a booth might look like under these new circumstances. "The era of publishers taking big booths is likely over for now," he admitted.
Central to the fair has always been the Literary Agents & Scouts Centre (LitAg), which last year hosted 780 agents from 355 agencies, who came from 35 countries. Among the agencies who attended the fair last year, 81 came from the U.S., 67 from the U.K., and 40 from Germany.
Anyone who has ever been to the LitAg knows that the traditional set-up of small tables lined up only feet apart in closely packed rows, will not work now. Boos said that fair was considering moving the LitAg to another venue in the city center — an old fairground where the book fair has held previous events. Such a move, Boos said, would allow the fair to "offer every agent their own tennis court," which he later revised to say, "okay, maybe a handball court." While he said moving the LitAg would mean a different experience, Boos said he is committed to developing a suitable solution."There are lot of possibilities and we are working very closely with the city of Frankfurt, the health organizations, and the government to make this work."
Referencing the rights center, Boos said that going forward the fair intends to concentrate its efforts, in part, on fostering stronger relationships with film makers, TV producers, streaming media companies, and even the music business. "You saw what we did last year by incorporating more audiobooks into the fair and it was a great success," he said. "Intellectual property is at the heart of the creative industries and the trade in IP is central to the fair."
Adding Virtual Elements
Several fair events will be made part or wholly virtual, including the fair's opening ceremony and press conference, Boos said. It is also likely that at least some of Canada's Guest of Honor presentation this year will be virtual and Boos said the fair will be working with local media to get attention for the over 200 books that have been translated into German from Canadian authors for the event and which are being published this fall.
Boos also said the fair may leverage its network of international offices in Beijing, Delhi, Moscow, and New York to allow locals in those cities to virtually participate in events at the fair, as well as offer additional connection to the international community year-round.
Asked about ongoing programs such as the Frankfurt Fellowship and Star Watch, Boos said the fair is looking at options for how to make them viable within the context of the re-imagined fair. As for possible refunds for people who have already put down deposits or paid for booths, Boos said the fair intends to "be very generous" with exhibitors. "We have built up our international network of publishing professionals and been a leader for this community and we intend to continue in this role."
Finally, one commenter asked what would happen to fair's popular networking parties, such as the daily one at the Frankfurter Hof where Boos can often be found at the head of a table at Oscar's treating honored guests to schnitzel and champagne. Boos remarked, "Well, as you know, that party mostly takes place outdoors, in sun or rain, so I'm sure that people will find a way to let it continue, but it will be different and if it happens, it will be done safely."