Expectations were high in the buildup to the 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair, another year removed from the pandemic and with the fair set to celebrate its 75th anniversary. But world events—most prominently, the war between Israel and Hamas—have loomed large over the fair, where the professional program draws to a close today.
Despite the state of world affairs, business appeared brisk, and the fair seems to be bouncing back from the pandemic, reporting roughly 105,000 trade visitors from 130 countries. “We have returned to about 80% of the square meters of exhibitors that we had in 2019,” said Juergen Boos, director of the Book Fair. “And part of that is the loss of the Russian national stand, which was banned following their invasion of Ukraine, and Iran, which pulled out following our announcement of Salman Rushdie as winner of the Peace Prize [of the German Book Trade].”
Organizers said that the fair has seen an overall rise in ticket sales, some of which is likely a consequence of the fair adding several new events for the public. Those include a “Meet the Author” program for author signings, a TikTok Book Award ceremony, and a ticket event for 2,000 people for a live recording with Philip Banse and Ulf Buermeyer, hosts of the popular German podcast Lager der Nation (State of the Nation). “What this means is, the readers are back,” Boos said, adding that sales of tickets to the public were up 10% over the previous year.
On the professional side, the rights trade remains at the heart of the fair, and this year’s Literary Agents and Scouts Center (LitAg) drew 326 agencies representing more than 30 countries and occupying a record 584 tables. A new Publishers Rights Center for publishing rights directors also debuted adjacent to the LitAg. And perhaps the biggest news for the rights trade was the return of Chinese publishers—including Phoenix Publishing and Media Group, the country’s largest conglomerate—after a three-year absence. However, several publishers told PW that Chinese publishers at this year’s fair appeared reluctant to buy rights from American publishers.
Among the book genres trending around the world in 2023, according to fairgoers, are: occult books and gifts, including tarot card decks; shadow work journals and books, which are focused on helping someone recover from trauma and are trending on TikTok; and self-help books for new adults (18-35 year olds), an age-group category that has seen a resurgence. In some parts of the world, self-help has been recategorized as self-healing, to make it more palatable and attractive to younger readers.
An emerging trend British and American publishers are keeping an eye on is the increase in rights sales to European publishers for English language rights, not only for translation. “The issue is that publishers are losing sales to English-language publishers while they wait for a translation, since readers can order an English-language book on Amazon or even buy it from their local bookstore” said Boos. By publishing a book in English, a German publisher, for example, can capture sales that would otherwise be lost to a publisher that exported the title from the U.K.—or, in some cases, albeit less frequently, the U.S.
Meanwhile, in the professional program, AI and environmental sustainability were the hot topics. The keynote talk at the opening press conference was given by U.K. environmentalist and author Gaia Vince, author of Nomad Century (Flatiron), who discussed how climate change will become a catalyst for further nomadic immigration among populations. Slovenia was this year's guest of honor country, hosting a program under the motto "Honeycomb of Words."
Still, while publishers managed to get down to business, geopolitics loomed large over the event. On the eve of the fair, several Arab publishing associations, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia, abruptly pulled out the fair to protest a decision by Litprom (a Frankfurt Book Fair–affiliated organization chartered to promote the work of authors from underrepresented countries in the global South) to postpone the 2023 LiBeraturpreis award ceremony honoring Berlin-based Palestinian author Adania Shibli. A letter published on Arablit.org protesting the postponement garnered nearly 1,500 signatures. Furthermore, Boos rankled some with a statement—later amended—that was read by some as the fair’s intention to foreground the interests of Israeli and Jewish writers to the exclusion of Palestinian voices.
At the fair’s opening press conference on October 17, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, chairwoman of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, took stock of the perilous state of world affairs. “Our sympathy goes to all the victims of the violence in Israel and Palestine,” she said. “Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, violating international law, has been raging on the edge of Europe now for a year and a half. Looking at Germany, we are concerned by the increase in popularity of extreme positions in society and the political party landscape. Debates are heating up; words are triggering waves of agitation. All around us, populism and nationalism are gaining ground at an alarming rate.”
Reflecting on the book business today, Schmidt-Friederichs also sounded a note of caution, suggesting that the entire book ecosystem—writers, publishers, booksellers, and distributors—is vulnerable. “The pandemic years of store closures and canceled trade fairs, as well as the explosion in raw material and energy costs, are threatening the economic existence of small, independent publishing houses in particular,” she said, adding that new AI technologies are threatening copyright and creativity.
On its 75th anniversary, amidst a challenging publishing and geopolitical environment, Boos said that the Frankfurt Book Fair will continue to play a vital role. “The fact is that we now live in a world where people are very polarized in their opinions and we don’t have common ground, which is something we hope to provide,” he noted. “That is our role as a book fair.”