This year is an experiment,” says Frankfurt Book Fair director Juergen Boos of the reimagined event, which will take place October 12–18. Organizers of the fair, which is the centerpiece of the international publishing calendar, canceled the in-person fair at the beginning of the month, citing travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason; 800 exhibitors and 40 national stands were affected by the cancellation. “People were very much looking forward to the fair, which many hoped would be a signal of the end of the pandemic,” Boos says, “but that is obviously not the case, so it is very emotional for all of us.”

Exhibitors who registered for this year’s fair will have their registration converted to one for the digital fair. In addition, companies that made payments for space rental will have the option of having those payments either refunded or rolled over to the 2021 fair.

Approximately 80 live events will still take place in and around the city of Frankfurt, but the majority of these are consumer-facing author presentations that are part of the fair’s Bookfest program, which launched last year. This year’s Bookfest will include virtual appearances by Elizabeth Gilbert, Karin Slaughter, Don Winslow, and new PEN president Ayad Akhtar.

Some other key aspects of the fair, such as the opening press conference and keynote speech, will be filmed live on the grounds of the Messe in the Festhalle, which last year housed the LitAg literary agents center and will this year serve as a broadcast studio capable of hosting a live audience of as many as 450 people. Boos notes that the fair has been in near-constant conversation with the national and local health authorities to ensure that any in-person events meet all safety protocols. “The German government, the state of Hessen, and the city of Frankfurt have all been very supportive of us,” Boos says, adding that the German minister of culture, Monika Grütters, will attend the fair’s opening ceremony “as an affirmation of just how important literary culture and the creative industries are to the country.” The keynote speaker at the opening ceremony will be Israeli author David Grossman. “I thought that, given this moment in time, with a pandemic and populist politics present throughout the world, that Grossman is a perfect person to open this very special edition of the fair,” Boos says.

Virtual B2B networking and programming

As for how Americans can participate in this year’s fair, much of it involves the opportunity to take part in the book fair’s online B2B, which includes a tool that will show you potential business partners who match with your interests and profile. “This is our attempt to help recreate the spirit of the fair,” says Boos. The fair will also be hosting proprietary, invite-only events to supplement the private meetings arranged between fairgoers—something this year’s digital platform will facilitate.

Boos has long sought to turn Frankfurt into a forum for both book publishers and content creators, citing last year’s CEO talk with Netflix International Originals vice president Kelly Luegenbiehl as the type of programming he’d like the fair to offer more often and the type of executive he wants to attract.

Virtual B2B sessions are beginning October 5 and will include prerecorded Market Insight sessions, which will offer an overview of individual markets around the world—including one hosted by PW. Networking opportunities also begin on September 24 with the launch of The Hof, an informal online social hub inspired by the nighttime parties held during the fair at the Frankfurter Hof hotel, and will offer music and short, inspirational interviews with industry leaders.

As for the fair itself, a series of themed virtual conferences will run from 9 to 11:30 a.m. EDT daily. October 12 focuses on academic and scholarly publishing. October 13, which covers rights and licensing, will include the traditional Rights Meeting, this year featuring agent Andrew Nurnberg, Anna Soler-Pont of the Pontas Agency, Marty Brochstein from Licensing International, and Corinne Quentin of Bureau des Copyrights Francais, among others. (For details about how literary agents and rights directors are handling the fair, see “Going Virtual”).

The October 14 program focuses on publishing insights, with presentations from Waterstones and Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt; Canongate UK commercial director Jenny Fry; Caroline Leavitt, author and cofounder of A Mighty Blaze; Gustavo Lembert, publisher of TAGLivros in Brazil; and Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO of HarperCollins Publishers India, On October 15, Videl Bar-Kar, global head of audio at Bookwire; Javier Celaya of Dosdoce; and Magnus Nytell, head of international expansion at Nextory will offer presentations on audiobooks, and several Meet the Editors events will feature discussions with editors from a single country—such as a U.S. panel featuring Gabriella Page-Fort of Amazon Crossing; Kendall Storey from Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull Press; and Michael Wise of New Vessel Press. There will also be events covering several timely topics, including selling political and social justice books in the U.S. and recent developments in Arab publishing. Bodour Al Qasimi, v-p of the International Publishers Association, will lead a discussion on women and publishing in Africa; additionally, a larger session addressing nonfiction publishing around the world will feature Karina Bolasco, director of Ateneo UP (Philippines); Colleen Higgs, publisher of Modjaji Books (South Africa); Veruschka Selbach, managing director of Pluto Press (U.K.); and Hernán López Winne of Ediciones Godot (Argentina). Literary scout Maria Campbell will also be speaking during the fair, about expanding the audience of readers.

New this year will be a track for international booksellers who sell foreign-language titles in their bookshops and who would like to gain insight into the workings of the German book market and German publishing. The fair is selecting some two dozen booksellers to take part in an exclusive training, exchange, and networking program to be held during the fair, as well as through October and November. (Applications to join the program are due by September 28.) In addition, the European and International Booksellers Federation will be holding an online discussion as part of the fair, on the topic of helping to make bookselling and publishing environmentally sustainable.

Making the best of it

Simon & Schuster president and CEO Jonathan Karp agrees that networking and rights needed to be at the heart of what Frankfurt provides. “According to our rights directors, nothing matches Frankfurt as an opportunity to see a slew of knowledgeable industry players quickly,” Karp says. “Also, many times, having the publishers see a physical book or galley makes all the difference in the interest you get for a book. It is hard to get excited over a PDF without holding the book and seeing how the finished book looks. Friendly Zoom calls aren’t a substitute for the chatty give-and-take about markets, trends, and larger industry changes that face-to-face meetings afford. No chance encounters, either! We don’t know that anything can replace the relationship-building done over a cup of coffee, dinner, or even some snacks at the stand. There is one upside, though. Colleagues here, who normally wouldn’t be able to travel to the fair, will be able to join in on some meetings and get valuable experience. We are all trying to make the best of the situation.”

Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch echoes Karp’s sentiment, noting that he and his team will miss meeting up with friends and colleagues at the fair, particularly at the company’s annual party on the fair’s opening day. “But, as we did with BookExpo, we’re looking at this virtual Frankfurt Book Fair as an opportunity,” Pietsch says. “We’ll use this year’s fair to put to the test the many digital collaboration tools that we’ve been deploying all year, and to come out of it with a clearer sense of what is truly essential about the in-person experience. We look forward to returning in the future better able to spread enthusiasm and maximize the value of the international publishing community for our authors.”

Canada, which was slated to be the guest of honor country in Frankfurt this year, has had its program delayed to 2021. Gillian Fizet, executive director of Canada FBM 2020, says that a key component of the guest of honor program each year is facilitating the translation of titles into German. “We exceeded our goal of having 200 titles translated from Canadian English- and French-language publishers,” Fizet says. “Most of these are being published this year in time for the fair, and only some have been delayed, so we want to make sure that they don’t get overlooked because of the pandemic.” Spain, which is the guest of honor country for 2022, will also hold a preview session, which will offer specific information about translation grants.

Kristin Cochrane, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, whose publishing house is responsible for publishing several of the 53 Canadian authors scheduled to make the trip abroad, says she appreciates the steps Frankfurt has taken to work with the Canadian publishing industry over new plans for the guest of honor event. “We are grateful for the wise decision to delay, to keep our authors safe and to celebrate them in 2021 with the fanfare they deserve,” Cochrane says. Nevertheless, she adds, “We’re still looking forward to participating in this year’s events, celebrating our books and authors, and making virtual contact with other attendees around the world. In many cases, Frankfurt’s digital offerings will be more accessible to a wider group, including those for whom the costs of travel have put Frankfurt out of reach in previous years, allowing a broader range of our colleagues to participate and broaden their networks.”

Adapting, for now

Further afield, Pakistani publisher Babar Maqbool says this will be his first break in 10 consecutive years of going to Frankfurt, and notes that not attending “fills me with sorrow.” Nonetheless, he doesn’t feel the lack of a physical fair will have a significant impact on his business. “From a business point of view, however, the lack of it this year would affect more nostalgia than business,” Maqbool says. “There isn’t anything that can’t be done by skipping it, I’m realizing. All the publishers and distributors I may need to work with are a click away.”

Luiz Schwarcz, publisher of Companhia das Letras in Brazil, notes that “the fact that we are not seeing all the friends and colleagues from the publishing world is a pity, but we are doing excellent deals without traveling.” He adds that he is feeling “very optimistic for the rest of the year about sales,” though he notes that challenges remain, particularly when it comes to supporting independent bookstores in Brazil, which have been struggling since the pandemic began.

German independent bookstores have similarly struggled during the pandemic. “The book market in Germany is not doing too badly,” says Ronald Schild, managing director at the German trade group MVB. “But indies are down about 10% for the first eight months of the year. Still, they are recovering.” Schild says that overall book sales in Germany were down just 6% through August and that he expects sales to continue to improve for the rest of the year. One thing that has helped, he notes, is that each German bookseller was granted €7,500 to assist with facilitating a transition to online sales.

The Frankfurt Book Fair serves as the national book fair for Germany, where books and authors are given their strongest platform for promotion. Schild says that the move to a virtual fair is a serviceable stopgap, but not a viable long-term solution. “The situation we have at the moment is not something we can change, and my personal opinion is that it is bearable, but for a limited amount of time,” he says. “Many booksellers and publishers are really sad that the fair is not happening, and they lament the lack of opportunity to present their books and authors. If it is for a year or two, it will be fine, but any longer may be seriously damaging to the industry.”

Below, more from the Frankfurt Book Fair.

ReBoot Kicks Off
ReBoot: Books, Business, and Reading, comprising an October 13 conference plus research tracks, is designed to analyze how Covid-19 could reshape the global publishing industry.

Frankfurt Book Fair: Going Virtual
American agents prep for a Frankfurt like no other—from their homes.

RELX Stays #1
A year after the RELX Group (formerly Reed Elsevier) wrestled away the crown of the world’s largest publisher from longtime leader Pearson, the STM, business, and legal publisher stayed #1 with revenue in 2019 of $5.64 billion, about a 7% increase from 2018.

This article has been updated to reflect new information about networking activities at the fair.