After a year’s hiatus as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Frankfurt Book Fair returned October 20–22 as a hybrid event, featuring a mix of online programming, in-person presentations, exhibit halls, and the agents center. The number of participants for the in-person fair was significantly scaled down from previous years, with daily capacity limited to 25,000 to accommodate social distancing. In all 36,000 trade visitors from 105 countries attended the fair. A further 37,500 private visitors from 85 countries also attended. More than 2,013 companies from 80 countries participated, as part of the Literary and Agents Center, rented one of the fair's new workstations, or rented a booth. By way of comparison, the 2019 fair attracted more than 300,000 people and 7,500 exhibitors.
Many of the largest publishers, particularly those from the U.S. and U.K., chose to stay home, creating room for smaller and medium-size publishers to gain more visibility and interact with a larger range of potential business partners.
Georgina Segarra Ros, publisher of Gemser Publications, a children’s book press and packager from Barcelona, took a stand in Hall 4.1. She summed up what many publishers surveyed said they felt about the fair when she said, “We were worried at first, but it has been a good experience this year. Yes, it is empty compared with other fairs, but there are still people coming through the aisles. Previously, we would have made many appointments in advance, but this time we had only a few, so we were able to meet with people spontaneously and had longer conversations. The people who did come are very eager to work, and we think that quite a lot of business will come out of our having come this year. Altogether, we are very happy.”
Michael Z. Wise, cofounder of New Vessel Press, a publishing house specializing in literary translation based in New York City, made the trip to Frankfurt. “Being one of a handful of Americans at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair has meant a particularly warm welcome for New Vessel Press,” Wise said. “Yes, it’s notably quieter than usual, although having 35 appointments spread out over three days, when I usually have over 50, it’s been hectic enough. I’ve been coming to Frankfurt annually since 2013, and this fair is a strange one. Still, being here has been incredibly rewarding.”
Kate Wilson, managing director of U.K. children’s publishing house Nosy Crow, was among a handful of publishers from the U.K. attending. “While the 2021 Frankfurt Book Fair wasn’t ever going to be as lively and packed as the 2019 fair and its forerunners,” Wilson said, “we are nevertheless pleased to be here, engaging culturally and commercially with other publishers from around the world. We filled two days with appointments and made over 20 new contacts from ‘walk-ins’ to the stand.”
Though it was far from a normal show, those who attended said it was great to reconnect with other publishers and agents. “I think that prior to 2020 and this year, people may have taken the Frankfurt Book Fair a bit for granted,” said Juergen Boos, director of the book fair. “But this year was a reminder of just how important it is to meet face-to-face, how important those chance meetings and serendipitous discussions are to our creative industry.”
Boos emphasized that one of the lessons learned in the past two years is to emphasize quality over quantity. “We are implementing that idea here at the fair and with our online activities,” Boos added. He pointed to the presence of collective stands from more than 80 countries that participated this year—“It is a model that is working well for many publishers”—and suggested that grouping together publishers from the same country, who might otherwise have individual booths, creates more spontaneous business interactions.
Central to the book fair is the LitAg, the literary agents and rights center, which was filled to only 25% of capacity. Boos said the fair is exploring ways of reviving the center, which has lost numerous clients, many of whom have adapted to using online communications to handle deals. “We’re looking at allowing publishers to take tables in the LitAg going forward, which is something they have wanted to do,” he noted.
This is just one of the ways in which Boos said the fair may evolve in the coming years, with international publishers grouped in collective stands and individual publishers taking the best of several options—which may include a booth, renting a workstation, or paying for a table at the LitAg.
On the other hand, Boos said, German-language publishers are looking at expanding their booths to incorporate stages to host more author events. With Covid-19 having curtailed author tours and public events, “German publishers see the fair as an opportunity for more customer interaction,” he added.
Several programs that were initiated in 2019 and 2020 have become central to the Frankfurt Book Fair’s activities, including a focus on audiobooks—“the hot topic of the fair,” according to Boos. In addition, the fair will retain its digital platforms, which include broadcasting events online from its studio set up in the Festhalle, and the Frankfurt Rights digital platform.
“Social media interaction has been normalized,” said Boos, who noted that the fair’s social media feeds have become a lively forum for cultural and political discussions.
As for the live event itself, Boos pointed out that initially the fair was “quiet,” but “things really picked up in activity as the week progressed.” Even the party scene at the Frankfurter Hof, the hotel in the city center where publishers typically gather for drinks at the end of each day, had reemerged. “I couldn’t get my usual table at Oscar’s [the hotel restaurant],” he said.
Asked what his highlight of the week was, Boos responded that it was the opportunity to socialize with the young publishers participating in the Frankfurt Book Fair’s fellowship program. “It wasn’t easy, but this year we brought in several people from Africa—three from Mozambique, Cameroon, and Rwanda—as well as from Nepal and Kazakhstan. I was surprised at how professional these young people are already. Everyone spoke English and is in touch with the world. It’s very encouraging to see this new generation of publishers emerge.”
Canada was the guest of honor country at this year’s fair. The country had two large booths, one for French and one for English, pictured here.
This story has been updated with the final attendance figures.