If they knew what the word meant, booktraders the world over would use America's book trade cliche "handselling" to describe what they mainly do at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This year, as in recent years, the biggest business at the fair, to be held October 13-18, will be in foreign rights -- mainly foreigners buying Anglo-American books. Armed with e-mail hot line tips from their New York and London scouts, the big spenders from everywhere else come to the fair to build their lists. But despite ingenious efforts to convey rights offers and bids electronically, when big money is involved, it's still privileged relationships that count -- one-on-one meetings, midnight phone calls, furtive handshakes.

The Frankfurt Fair, on the brink of a new millennium, remains, more than ever, a people fair. No big league publisher or agent dares to miss it. The wisest come a day (often two or three days) before the official Wednesday opening, for hotel-lobby meetings (set up as early as July) every half hour and all day long. Some don't bother to stay till things begin dribbling away on Sunday or Monday, for by then everything important has been done.

The continued need for handselling in the international rights market is surely why the fair has grown again this year--only this time it's happening in a different way. The number of exhibitors from major trading nations is down slightly, while the space they occupy will increase. Bowing to the inevitable, and to the dismay of major agencies, the Agents and Scouts Center has been moved out of English-speaking Hall 8; the vacuum was filled in a jiffy from the waiting list of would-be publisher attendees.

The need for more space for fewer publishers is of course a matter of consolidation. "The general pattern clearly reflects the process of concentration throughout our industry," fair director Peter Weidhaas explains to PW. "We expect the trend to continue for the time being." As for the rapid booking of the space in Hall 8 freed by the displacement of the Agents Center: "Anglo-American publishers remain the strongest and most competitive players in our industry."

The one Frankfurt sector going counter to the trend is sci-tech and academic publishing, where "considerable" growth will be seen this year both in the number of companies and exhibition surface. One major player, Wolters Kluwer, which spun off its Dutch trade publishing group in an MBO, has moved from the Dutch national sector to the STM sector on the top floor of Hall 4. For the fair's Weidhaas, such developments only serve to confirm the strength and diversity of this "highly competitive" segment of the industry.

The bad tidings could have been predicted. The fair's electronics pavilion, launched with much fanfare in the heyday of CD-ROM, continues its slow decline, since publishers of off-line content available for electronic publishing prefer to show it alongside books on their traditional stands. Meanwhile, with the development of online publishing and e-commerce, and pending the emergence of universally acceptable business models, the fair has mounted a program of presentations and panels on online bookselling (on the ground floor of Hall 4). There will be presentations by 10 specialized booksellers with innovative market niche concepts, as well as pioneer service providers linked to online bookselling.

After an initial period of euphoria, encouraged by an inflow of grants and investment from the West, publishing in countries in the former Soviet bloc is following the general economic downturn in those parts--with somewhat better news still coming from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Fair bookings will reflect both the bad news and the good. (Frankfurt Fair management, which monitors trends in Eastern and Central Europe year-round, fears for the rights markets of both Russia and Romania.)

Moving the Agents

For many fairg rs, Frankfurt's Agents Center has always been the tail that wags the dog, and its location alongside the American and British publishers in Hall 8--with the Germans to one side, the rest of the publishing world to the other--seemed to be just right. As the number of users grew, so did the center, expanding upward (with a second floor) as well as outward--until it could grow no more; the waiting list just wouldn't go away, and most would-be first-timers had to be turned down.

Still, it came as a jolt when fair management announced earlier this year that the center would be moved. The space eventually found for it is not in an exhibitor pavilion at all but in Hall 10, a building across the road from 8 and 9, reached by walkways from the glass-topped Galleria separating those halls. In an attempt to sugarcoat the pill, the fair has added to or improved the center's features, which include reserved tables with clear signage, a depot for incoming faxes, a copying desk for brief documents and even a messenger service. There is a sit-down restaurant (shared with the adjacent press center), a snack bar inside the center and the usual message desk, bulletin boards and lockers.

One can guess that some agents won't find the going easy, at least for the first year; agents who don't plan ahead--and their publisher visitors--may be surprised by the extra time it takes to reach the center. It d s call for some adjusting of appointment calendars. Weidhaas, who saw no alternative to the displacement, points out that agents are now being asked to do what publishers had done several years earlier due to the fair's expansion--to cover greater distances. An inconvenience, certainly, "but it's the price to pay," Weidhaas tells PW, "for the convenience of having everybody in the industry present at our fair. After all, the travel from Hall 10 to Hall 8 is still a lot faster than to fly from New York to Tokyo or to Berlin."

Perhaps one should try doing it the electronic way after all? For the fair d s try to keep up with the times: while it can't promise soup-to-nuts e-rights trading à la U.S. literary agent John Brockman, who sends proposals to hand-picked publishers and even collects their bids online, it now offers a "Frankfurt Book Fair Virtual" package, including a rights catalogue covering both book and multimedia titles, with 11 indexes to facilitate searching. Information will be kept updated online until the opening of the fair. The package contains the exhibitors catalogue and a Who's Who at the Book Fair. A CD-ROM version is already en route to exhibitors, with an updated disk to be ready before the fair opening.

This year the International Rights Directors Meeting--scheduled for the Tuesday afternoon preceding the fair--addresses the issue: "Rights Selling Via the Internet." Speakers include Sharon Swados of Bantam Dell, agent John Brockman and Roberto Minio of PIRA International. (U.K.); London agent Carole Blake of Blake Friedman will chair. (For details, contact Frankfurt's International Division, fax 49-69-2102-258, e-mail becker@book-fair.com.)

The German book trade's Peace Prize, bestowed on Sunday morning in the downtown Paulskirche (seat of the constituent meeting of Germany's first parliament in 1848), will go to German-American historian Fritz Stern of Columbia University, most recently author of Einstein's German World, due this month from Princeton University Press (PW Forecasts, July 26).

Each Frankfurt Fair comes with a country theme, targeted to the German press and public. This year's focus is on Hungary, but with a difference: the focal theme pavilion (ground floor of Hall 3) will not only feature Hungarian culture, including special events in literature, music and the fine arts, but for the first time will contain the booths of the country's publishers, plus a Hungarian restaurant and Budapest Coffee House. Hungarian culture and derivatives (such as "Masterpieces of Italian Art from the Esterházy Collection") will also be featured in the city's museums and galleries; Frankfurt's Jewish Museum will host an exhibition from the Budapest Jewish Museum.

Once again, the first three days of the fair--Wednesday through Friday--are restricted to trade professionals; the general public is allowed in on the weekend, then professionals only again on the final day, Monday, October 18 (from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Tickets for the run of the fair are available to the trade at DM60, or DM25 for a single day. Public tickets cost DM12. (A U.S. dollar bought DM1.86 at a recent conversion.) Also on the practical side, note that the Messe station of the Frankfurt subway system is open at last.

The fair's formal opening will be on Tuesday, October 12, at 5 p.m. (in the fairgrounds Congress Center). Speakers are to include Michael Naumann, who used to attend the fair as CEO and publisher of Germany's Rowohlt and then of America's Holt; this year for the first time he wears his new hat as Germany's Minister of Culture and Media.

Frankfurt 99: Watch on the Rhine