The international circuit begins each year with two spring fairs: the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and the London Book Fair, typically held in March and April, respectively. The several book fairs of the summer and fall follow: Beijing International Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair held, respectively, in August or September and October. The fairs rounding out the year include those in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Sharjah, UAE. A slew of other fairs are also of some international, but primarily regional, importance, including those in Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Cairo, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Kyiv, Leipzig, Montreal, Moscow, New Delhi, Paris, Prague, São Paulo, Seoul, Taipei, and Thessaloniki. One could spend the entire calendar year just traveling to book fairs.
Sometimes world affairs intervene to create challenges for the fairs, such as in the fall of 2008, which saw, first, the Russo-Georgian war in August and the global economic collapse in September. The impact of both events was apparent at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, where the stands of Greece, Iceland, and Ireland stood nearly empty as a result of the economic crisis, and the Georgian stand, in close proximity to Russia’s stand, staged a days-long protest in which Georgians bombarded the Russian stand with paper airplanes made from pages torn out of Russian books.
Fast forward to 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to cause ripples on the international book fair scene as well, though the full impact is uncertain at press time. For starters, nearly all the major international book fairs announced they have banned Russia’s state-sponsored publishers and booksellers from exhibiting at their fairs, though independent publishers will be allowed. The primary concern is that the war will spill over into other countries in Europe and create hesitation among fairgoers about traveling to the fairs or exhibiting; this would have significant consequences for both Bologna and London. Both fairs have been idle for two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and each had offered virtual alternatives in both 2020 and 2021. Most people found these virtual events less than satisfying, however, and it is urgent that the fairs return to in-person events as soon as possible, lest fairgoers lose their sense of loyalty.
Frankfurt, Beijing, and Guadalajara also went digital in 2020, and then each returned with scaled-down in-person events in 2021. Having benefited from its late date in the year, Sharjah was able to hold a modest book fair at the end of 2020, then returned in 2021 with its full show. Thus, Sharjah could take bragging rights to being the biggest book fair in the world last year, attracting 1.3 million people, compared with just 75,000 in 2021 for Frankfurt, which would typically bring in some 300,000, and Guadalajara, which allowed in just 200,000 people, when it would usually host more than 700,000. The Beijing fair was said to be half its usual size in 2021, which generally brings in 300,000 people. All these fairs are not exclusive to publishing professionals and cater to some extent to consumers and members of the public, who account for most of the attendees. In contrast, both Bologna and London only allow professionals to attend and typically draw 30,000 and 25,000 attendees, respectively.
These large numbers of people spend a lot of money and, accordingly, represent a huge, predictable influx of cash into the community hosting a book fair. Some people take advantage of this, such as the hoteliers in Frankfurt who triple their rates during the fair. When Covid-19 shut down the fairs, national governments were compelled to step in and shore up the finances of the organizers to ensure the fair would keep going. Still, Covid did have some consequences: Jacks Thomas, director of the London Book Fair for seven years, retired, then started working with Bologna, while Frankfurt closed several overseas offices and significantly reduced its overall staff numbers.
Despite returning to live events this year, the fear remains among the fair organizers that as publishers become accustomed to doing business digitally, they will feel less and less compelled to travel to meet with colleagues in real life. Going into 2022, for the first time in many people’s careers, the relevance and importance of attending in-person events is being questioned. Going back, say, to the early 1990s, it wasn’t always so. Social media didn’t yet exist, nor did Zoom. Face-to-face meetings and negotiations at book fairs were a high priority. Publishers would fly to a fair and take their most important meetings first, hoping to get their hands on the hottest manuscripts. A savvy publisher would make time between other meetings and socializing to speed read the book and, ideally, offer a preempt large enough to entice a publisher to commit. If enough parties were interested, the seller might then hold an auction. All this would happen over three or four days, and the concentrated time frame of the fair amplified the excitement, which, anecdotally at least, helped drive up the purchase price of rights.
Most fairs have some form of a dedicated rights center, an area where agents, foreign rights directors, and publishers can meet to negotiate deals. The template for this kind of activity was established by the Frankfurt Book Fair, which created the LitAg, or Literary Agent’s Center, in 1978. The LitAg features dozens of rows of small tables, none bigger than a middle schooler’s desk, dedicated to an agency or publishing house. There will be found one or two people on each side of the table, often in heated conversation, flipping through portfolios of titles and discussing deals. It feels a little like a stock market trading floor. Entry is restricted to those who have an appointment, and security is tight to prevent agents from being distracted by aspiring authors. At the busiest fairs, meetings are booked in half-hour clusters, back-to-back, for six to eight hours a day for the length of the fair. Frankfurt has retained the crown as the busiest agents center and has doubled in size in the past 30 years, now hosting some 500 tables representing 350 different literary agencies. In 2000, Reuters estimated that fully 80% of the rights deals for all books were done in Frankfurt. That number is now likely smaller, for in the past decade the London Book Fair, which has a smaller agents center, has surpassed Frankfurt’s importance for English-language rights trading. The biggest, most important rights deals, when they are done, are celebrated after-hours with Champagne in Frankfurt, pints in London, or a glass of good Barolo in Bologna.
For several decades, due to a coincidence of timing, both the U.K.’s Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize were announced at some point during the week of Frankfurt, prompting a rush on rights for the winning author’s books. The Booker announcement always happened at night, with a watch party at the bar of the Frankfurter Hof Hotel (the primary after-hours party venue for fairgoers), and it seemed for long stretches of the 2000s that the U.S. publisher of the winning book was inevitably Grove Atlantic. It became a foregone conclusion that publisher Morgan Entrekin would buy a round of drinks for anyone in the vicinity. The Nobel Prize news would come in the morning, prompting a large cheer and a rush of people to the booth of whoever was the primary rights holder for the author’s books. This has produced some memorable scenes and airing of grievances, such as in 2008, when after it was announced that J.M.G. Le Clézio had won the Nobel, the stand of his French publisher, Gallimard, was mobbed by potential rights buyers. Anne-Solange Nobel, Gallimard’s foreign rights director at the time, announced, “If you have not bought rights from me for him before, then I will not sell you rights to him today, so go away!”
Over the past decade, one book fair that has come out of nowhere is the Sharjah International Book Fair, in the United Arab Emirates, which has made a strong push into rights trading, particularly among smaller, overlooked markets. It has been generous in sponsoring publishers and agents to participate and offers financial incentives for striking deals at the fair and payment for covering translation costs. The fair is one part of an overall project by the Sharjah Book Authority to help the emirate become a publishing hub for the Middle East and Africa.
This year the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah will be the guest of honor country at Bologna, Frankfurt, and Guadalajara—an unusual confluence, signaling the emirate’s ambitions. Most international book fairs will feature a guest of honor, typically a country or a region, and will highlight that country’s authors and literary culture through talks, performances, and other cultural programming. The most prestigious of these programs is Frankfurt’s, which often entails translating several hundred of a guest of honor country’s titles into German. Some small nations, including Iceland and Finland, as well as larger ones that are less familiar to global readers, such as Indonesia and Turkey, have used a showcase in Frankfurt as a means of generating broader international interest. China, too, has used this platform and was the guest of honor at Frankfurt in 2009 and then London in 2012, but encountered aggressive protests, particularly from groups supporting Uyghurs; it has largely abandoned large-scale participation in global fairs since.
The popularity and importance of any given book fair ebbs and flows over time and is often subject to the politics and economics of a given country. The Buenos Aires Book Fair, for example, is the second largest in the Spanish-language world, but a crash in the value of the peso has meant Argentine publishers have been less able to buy rights or export books. Consequently, the Bogotá Book Fair has risen to more prominence in recent years as a result of a more stable Colombian government. In another example, the São Paolo book fair was actively wooing international business in the decade preceding the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil, but that largely stopped after the conservative politician took power. The book fair in Moscow began wooing foreign journalists again in 2016, though that is unlikely to resume anytime soon. Taipei has been a popular book fair with international visitors, many seeing it as a literary gateway to mainland China, but the threat of invasion from China may prompt many of them to stay away for some time.
Still, attending an international book fair is a rite of passage for a young person in publishing and a step to career advancement. A trip to Beijing or Bologna, Frankfurt or Guadalajara, London or Sharjah says, “Hey, look, I am someone”—someone of status, ambition, vision, or someone with some really good books to sell.
So what does the international book fair of the future look like? It may, indeed, be a mixture of physical, in-person events and the continuation of virtual experiences we have seen burgeoning over the past two years. The 2010s saw the launch of at least two new platforms meant to facilitate digital rights trading activity, including PubMatch (partially owned by PW), which works with Bologna, among other fairs, and Frankfurt Rights, which is administered by the Frankfurt Book Fair. Neither platform has supplanted face-to-face meetings, nor were they meant to. Relationship building, however enacted, remains the bedrock of the international publishing industry.
It is true, however, that fairs offer something unique: serendipity. Ask almost any publisher who regularly attends fairs, and they are likely to have a story about how a chance meeting on a bus, in a bar, or in a bathroom led to their discovering a great book. This gamble that serendipity will pay off is perhaps what drives people to return to fairs time and time again: the chance of stumbling on the next global megaselling book and making it your own.