The Frankfurt Book Fair, held October 9—14, played out this year in an atmosphere that could have been described as decorous. "Last year we were all in a state of shock," one veteran fairgoer explained. "This year it was just... quiet." But another veteran, who remembered when the premier international book fair required actual physical movement when giving out or putting in for options, or picking up manuscripts for overnight reading, decided that thanks to 24-hour, 365-day e-mail, Frankfurt would always be quiet from now on. An increasing number of copyright holders had begged their agents to sell new projects before the fair began. Paris-American agent Michelle Lapautre was subject to more stress in the fortnight prior to the show than when she actually got to the fairgrounds. London's book trade weekly the Bookseller summed up all the fair-before-the-fair activity under the headline: "The Pre-Frankfurt Flurry."

Then there was the ever-expanding phenomenon of the hotel-lobby marketplace. At the two main book fair hotels—the Hessischer and Frankfurter Hofs—lounge chairs and tables were preempted by rights traders beginning on the Monday morning preceding the official opening of the fair; the same thing took place on Tuesday, with meetings scheduled throughout the day at half-hour intervals, just as on the fair floor.

If the unofficial fair seemed busier than ever, the situation on the fairgrounds had changed. For the first time in memory, the tempo seemed to have slowed. Official statistics confirmed that impression, although the number of professional visitors on the days preceding the weekend opening of the fair to the public was down only 1%; according to press officer Holger Ehling, foreign visitors were actually up 5% to 6% before the weekend. And they ought not to have perceived the shortfall in stand allotments at all, since most of the cancellations came from the fair's German contingent. Indeed, although individual exhibitors from Germany declined, from 2,474 last year to 2,128 this October, there was a slight rise in foreign participation (from 4,163 to 4,247 booths).

Though a few agents booked their own stands, the bulk of international rights traffic took place in the Literary Agents and Scouts Center, which (due to poor judgment by the fair's outgoing management team) had been located in just about the worst location possible, right at the top of Hall 6. Hanca Lippink, one of the fair's big spenders as publisher of the Dutch bestseller imprints grouped around Amsterdam's Luitingh-Sijthoff, described graphically for PW her up-and-down escalator trips, combined with seemingly endless rides on moving sidewalks, in order to put together what she was learning from publishers in adjacent halls with the actual buying and selling upstairs.

Paradoxically, the Agents Center was more crowded than ever, apparently because once safe and sound upstairs, users didn't feel like budging again. "We knew in advance that the location of the place was ridiculous," one experienced agent confided. "So we arranged our schedules to take that into account. Actually, I never leave the place!"

The good news—really good news—is that the fair's new director, Volker Neumann, an ex-Bertelsmann executive who for the first time brings book trade experience to the running of the event, has gone on record with a promise to bring the agents and scouts back into the picture.

The World's Business

People utilize Frankfurt to take each other's temperature, and there seemed to be an epidemic of chills and fever this year. Take the host country: in the past, Germany was the biggest and best market for American books; those days are long since gone, say the agents. "We can't pay what we used to," publishers tell them. Not only have advances plunged, but books bought aren't always published (they are postponed, often cancelled). "We'll lose our advance," a publisher said. "But we can't do the book—our reps aren't able to get it into the stores." "Germany's worst year," said another book person.

There were bright spots. Despite all, Random House's global CEO Peter Olson told PW, his German book group has improved results and gained market share. Some assumed Olson to be the protagonist of a story making the rounds: that one Bertelsmann executive had announced to his senior staff that during this crisis, the group was prepared to pick up the pieces, the pieces being the ailing Axel Springer publishers—Heyne, List and Ullstein, and also the Holtzbrinck publishers, "which if they aren't for sale, should be." True or false, the story created turbulence. In fact, Holtzbrinck has been slenderizing its companies, and overproduction was the principal message CEO Stefan von Holtzbrinck delivered to guests at his group's annual lunch for heads of houses at the top of Frankfurt's Deutsche Bank. "This year, the recession really hit the book trade," confessed Karl Blessing of his own Random House imprint at the annual lunch he hosts for the flower of the book trade. "Even books on the bestseller list didn't sell very well."

When German book traders exchanged impressions among themselves (so one veteran book trader told PW), the talk turned to the tendency of media groups to bad-mouth their book affiliates. Thus, the Axel Springer press and magazine people are hinting that book publishing is not a core business for the group; the Süddeutsche Zeitung group is expected to shed its STM book division; and prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung will also drop its book arm (Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, a successful nonfiction publisher).

Problems in Japan and Brazil

The sickness of Japan's book trade has become a chronic disease, and Ken Mori of Tuttle-Mori, Japan's oldest literary agency, described a "dramatic" drop in advances for fiction. But when nonfiction from abroad takes off, Japanese publishers can print and sell a million books. Some children's series—and not only Harry Potter—can do equally well.

"Don't put down Brazil," pleaded Claudio Rothmuller of Editora Campus in Rio (an Elsevier Science company). The context was the alarm raised in the book trade by that country's turbulent electoral campaign (only half over at fair time). Publishing is actually doing quite well, with sales up 15%—20%; books are looking better, and so are the shops. Campus does 240 new titles a year, 80% of them translations—textbooks, professional books in economics, management, business and computer science; it also has Jack Welch's Straight from the Gut.

"The trouble begins when we must send dollars to the copyright holders," noted Sergio Machado of Editora Record. "We sell in a currency that is worth fewer dollars all the time." He feared that some Brazilians might revert to practices that his father, Brazil's pioneer bestseller publisher, Alfredo Machado, had found when he began: widespread piracy and royalty statements that "read like fiction."

Machado and fellow Brazilian publishers were circulating a message to international agents and rights representatives spelling out their plight. In 2002 alone, Brazilian currency had suffered a devaluation of 40% with respect to dollars, and "a currency devaluation of this magnitude generates a considerable reduction in the dollar value of the royalties remitted.... It also significantly reduces our capacity to continue acquiring foreign rights at the levels practiced over the past few years."

PW heard some better news from Scandinavia, with Karl-Otto Bonnier of Bonnier describing a "lively" Swedish market, largely thanks to a reduction of the country's value-added tax on books from 25% to 5%. "But it's not only that. People are behaving as if times were good even though they aren't. It's hard to understand. Perhaps next year we'll have grounds to complain."

PW talked to another satisfied publisher in the person of Sylvie Audoly, foreign editor at Plon in Paris. Although she was a bit wary of books on current events—because of the obvious time lag with translated books—she was taking a bagful of fiction back to Paris.

The English-Speaking Scene

As for the Anglo-Americans, though their native industries are flat rather than in decline, the feeling was that though there was still plenty of interest in their offerings among foreign buyers, the kind of money they were offered in recent years was decidedly not forthcoming—except, oddly, from China, where what used to be minute advances had escalated in some cases into a respectable five figures.

HarperCollins chief Jane Friedman, returning after an absence last year, had a redesigned stand and a larger than usual contingent of editors, including a strong children's team, and was focused on selling rather than buying. She was also showing books to which Harper does not have world rights, explaining that Frankfurt is also an occasion for "branding," letting the world know of the important authors on the list. At Penguin Putnam, Adrian Zackheim at the Portfolio imprint was finding a lot of interest in his business titles. Many countries still look at American lists for books on leadership, he noted.

George Gibson at Walker found it a busier than usual fair, with many visitors to his small booth. Though Simon & Schuster had sold nearly all foreign rights in its biggest book, Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoirs, before the fair, the house hosted a breakfast with her international publishers to plan a worldwide one-day laydown. As has become customary, the fair's biggest party for the Anglo-American visitors was the Time Warner one on the eve of the fair (skipped last year in the wake of 9/11).

Heard Around the Fair

The outside world was very much with us during Frankfurt week. A significant part of the publishing community was following the Vivendi affair; it did seem as if a sale of France's largest publishing group (with Houghton Mifflin tucked in) would occur in a matter of... days? weeks? It seemed less sure that it would become an international affair, for Vivendi's French rival Hachette had pulled out all stops in advancing its candidacy, and French officialdom was firmly behind its bid. At the same time, a number of reputable French publishers were involved in counteroffers backed by non-French investors.

Just before the fair, a public relations bomb exploded in the face of Bertelsmann. A report commissioned by Bertelsmann management, which had appointed historian Saul Friedlander as chair, firmly branded the Hitler-era Bertelsmann firm as a willing tool of Nazi propaganda (News, Oct. 14). Bertelsmann's new chairman and CEO, Gunter Thielen, quickly issued a statement praising the commission's report and pointing out that Friedlander and his colleagues had enjoyed full access to Bertelsmann files. And it did seem as if the book community was prepared to consider today's Bertelsmann, purged of its sins, as a suitable business partner.

Meanwhile, at the swell reception thrown by the Axel Springer book group (Ullstein Heyne List), CEO Christian Strasser confounded the Cassandras by reporting satisfactory sales across the board for Germany's number three group. At the same time, the Dutch Wolters Kluwer group was known to be readying the sale of Kluwer Academic Publishers.

A few of the recent changes in ownership took material form on the floor. Octopus, after being handed over by its innovative publisher, Paul Hamlyn, to Reed, which later ceded it in a management buyout, and only recently moved into the orbit of France's Hachette, was now exhibiting in English-speaking Hall 8, sharing signage with Hachette Illustrated.

At the traditional S. Fischer reception held on the eve of the opening of the fair, there was a dramatic moment when Monika Schoeller, sister of Holtzbrinck group chairman Dieter von Holtzbrinck and CEO Stefan von Holtzbrinck, announced that after 28 years at the helm, she was stepping down as active Fischer publisher and turning that responsibility over to her chief deputy, Jörg Bong.

There were some major changes among the big bidders for English-language rights at the fair. Two leading publishers in the PCM group—the M standing for Meulenhoff—had defected to the rival Veen Bosch Keuning group. Marijke Bartels, until now publishing director at bestseller specialist De Boekerij, and Martijn David, publisher at general literary house J.M. Meulenhoff, were setting up a new company within Luitingh-Sithoff (a major Veen division). Bartels and David were busy shoppers during fair week.

Then France's Calmann-Lévy, a traditional publisher of translations, lost its American-in-Paris foreign editor, Nina Salter (a voluntary departure, all agreed), and promptly filled the void with American-in-Paris Ronald Blunden, who joins the firm as editorial director under CEO Jean-Etienne Cohen-Seat.

New Boy in Town

For the first time, the Frankfurt Fair could boast a director who had been an active book trader—at Random House Germany, in fact. He was approaching that Bertelsmann group's mandatory retirement age of 60, but his actual separation from the firm was due to a management clash. (Hard feelings or no, PW's camera caught him in friendly conversation with RH/Bertelsmann chief Peter Olson—see p. 41.)

Volker Neumann quickly made it clear that in taking over the Frankfurt Fair, he was going to attempt to reverse some of the quirky decisions of his immediate predecessor—including one of particular importance to international exhibitors, the location of the Agents Center. Then, in a tough statement delivered at the fair's opening press conference on October 9, he denounced the attitude of the host city to book fair visitors, identifying Frankfurt's hotels as the chief culprit. "It is hardly possible to explain the behavior of Frankfurt hotels to our exhibitors and trade visitors from home and abroad," he declared, "and it is not just among smaller exhibiting companies that accommodation costs are now quoted as a key reason for either not attending at all or reducing the number of people in the stands."

Neumann went so far as to threaten that the book fair might pull out of the city altogether. Really? In a later conversation with PW, Neumann confessed that his strong language had been a warning: "Of course we want to remain in Frankfurt, but at a reasonable cost to the fair organization and to our exhibitors."

As for the fair's internal business, Neumann repeated his promise to give the Agents Center a pivotal position among exhibition halls, in recognition of the fact that rights exchange was one of the most important things that take place at the fairgrounds. The solution hadn't been settled on yet. "We'll look for one as soon as this fair is over," he said. What other changes are contemplated? "We know what we won't change—Hall 8 [where the English-speaking contingent is located]. Everything else is open to question."

After Hours

Many of the publishers who had been following the books of Imre Kertész were small or smallish houses (Northwestern University Press in the U.S.), and everybody else at the fair seemed happy that they would be compensated for their efforts (for once nobody seemed to be pooh-poohing a Nobel Award). While no one from Kertész's Hungarian publisher (Magvetö) happened to be in Frankfurt at prize time, the laureate was well represented by his German publisher, Suhrkamp, which happens to be headquartered in Frankfurt—and has all his books in print.

The Börsenverein—the combined German publishers and booksellers association—held a reception to announce its plans for the next quadrennial International Publishers Congress, to be hosted by the Germans in Berlin June 21—24, 2004. On the fair's Thursday morning, alumni fellows and faithful supporters of the Jerusalem International Book Fair—described by fair director Zev Birger as "the brains of publishing"—joined other Jerusalem regulars for a Hessischer Hof breakfast as guests of S. Fischer's Monika Schoeller.

On the Tuesday preceding the fair's opening, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers held its 34th annual assembly, and again elected an American as chairman, in the person of Eric A. Swanson, senior v-p for STM publishing at John Wiley. He will replace outgoing chairman Robert D. Bovenschulte of the American Chemical Society.

The 55th Frankfurt Fair will run from October 8—13, 2003—and who knows what changes will be wrought by then?