In the first full year under director Volker Neumann, the popular, longtime Bertelsmann executive who took the reins just before last year's show, the Frankfurt Book Fair, which will be held October 8—13, has made a series of welcome changes.
Show management has reduced previously planned price hikes for exhibit space. It is arranging for more reasonably priced hotel rooms to be made available. It is creating more special events and exhibit-floor forums that address a range of trade, cultural and literary issues. It has added a translators' center. It has retained the focal country, which this year is Russia. Most important, it is listening to exhibitors' concerns and complaints.
Unfortunately, on several issues that are particularly important to foreign exhibitors and visitors, the fair comes up short this year, particularly regarding one made all the more urgent because of the industry's poor financial state. Each year, the book industry endures a nasty kind of tax from Frankfurt hotels, which double and triple already hefty room rates and require a six-night minimum stay. (With rooms at good hotels going for $400 or $500 a night—you do the math—companies can wind up spending small fortunes just on lodging.) Beginning at last year's show, management waged a very public campaign against this usurious policy, even threatening to move the fair to Munich, where rates would presumably be more reasonable and no minimums would be required. An April victory announcement concerning the issue has proven to be premature. While hotels agreed to freeze rates and waive the minimum-stay requirement, it turns out that, well, the hotels made no legal commitment and quietly decided not to honor the "agreement" this year—and likely will not next year. As a result, it was only when making reservations during the past few months that many fairgoers discovered that they will continue to have to pay high rates and be charged for nights they will be far from Frankfurt.
Since the fair has now committed to staying in Frankfurt until 2010, many fear that it has lost leverage and that such hotel policies will continue. (Show management is trying to lock up rooms at lower prices and is looking forward to the building of a hotel on the fairgrounds that will provide 300 rooms at more reasonable rates.)
Some American houses are reacting by making changes to save a little money, whether by cutting representation or finding cheaper hotels or hotels that don't require minimums, often far from the fairgrounds. Interestingly, it was the American branch of a German publishing company that has made the most public statement against high costs: Holtzbrinck USA, which includes St. Martin's, Holt and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is sending a "bare-bones" group to Frankfurt this year. Last month, Holtzbrinck USA president John Sargent told PW that with other avenues of communication, including e-mail and the Web, "it got to the point where, given the cost and inconvenience of travel to the fair, it made sense for us to reduce our representation." Still, show management expects American representation to stay level with last year. (After Germany and the U.K., the U.S., with more than 700 individual exhibitors, is the largest exhibiting country at the fair.)
Another major issue has been the Literary Agents' and Scouts Center, whose location on the top floor of Hall 6, too far from the madding crowds, dismayed many agents and publishers last year. Although show management has promised to address the problem, the Center this year will be back on Hall 6's fourth floor. (Despite location problems, the number of agents attending continues to climb, reaching 429 last year; Americans were the single-largest group of that total.)
Finally, some American exhibitors, who are used to an unofficial end of the fair late Friday afternoon, have been perturbed that the fair will remain open on Friday until 8:30 and that the general public—in the past allowed in only Saturday, Sunday and Monday—will be able to attend beginning Friday at 4 p.m. Wisely or not, many Americans view the fair as a trade-only event and don't want to deal with German readers, who, to their credit, are exceedingly curious about English-language books.
All that said, this year's Frankfurt Book Fair offers a variety of new programs and additions, ranging from large to small, that should make the fair all the more informative and useful. Among the minor but important innovations, for example: all show passes except press tickets will be valid on the extensive public transportation network, Rhein-Main-Verkehrsbund, which includes subways, street cars, suburban rail and buses. Fairgoers will not need to line up at the ticket automats to figure out fare zones—and figure out the machines.
The fair has designed new forums that will be dispersed throughout the halls to address the problem of issues and book categories that were buried because most exhibits combine all lines of a publisher's operations. The new forums are devoted to audiobooks, children's books, fiction, education, film and TV, innovation, Central and Eastern Europe, tourism and trends. Plaza Latina, which was a hit last year, will continue to focus on Latino and Hispanic literature and publishing.
The forums will offer readings, specialist talks, panel discussions. The sites may also be used for receptions and happy hours. Titles may be presented in shelf units, and, in a major break from past practices, publishers will be able to sell books in connection with author events at the forums.
Comics and graphic novels continue to be very popular at Frankfurt. The Comics Center will include the Fascination Comics special event and be located in Hall 3.0. Among the highlights of this area: an attempt this year to set a world record for the longest comic strip in the world, for which organizers need at least 500 participants (the first will be director Neumann) to draw pictures that altogether will stretch longer than 81.61 meters (about 268 feet). The event is sponsored in part by the Guinness World Records Verlag. The Comics Center will also feature signings and showings of movies based on comic strips and panels.
Located in Hall 6.1, the International Center will be opened by the foreign ministers of Germany and France, schedules permitting, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, which strengthened ties between France and Germany. Besides programming related to Franco-German relations and culture, the center will offer readings by poets from around the world; consider "a better future for books" in Iraq and Afghanistan; and examine various book events and reading promotions, among other subjects.
The new Translators Center, in Hall 4.0, is designed as a contact point for translators, publishers, editors and others, with tables, laptop workspaces, lockers and a cafeteria. There will also be an event space and an exhibition of translations.
At the ever-popular Rights Directors Meeting, which takes place on Tuesday, the day before the opening of the fair (nearly 200 people attended last year), six German and French book world representatives will discuss shifts in rights markets, including the effects of publishing and distribution consolidations, economic pressures and social and political issues. The panelists include Arnulf Conradi, publisher of Berlin Verlag; Jutta Willand, director of domestic and foreign rights for Eichborn; Stephan Roppel, section chief for books, media and export at Amazon.de; Claude Cherki, publisher of Editions du Seuil; Olivier Nora from Grasset; and Gilles de la Porte, president of the French Booksellers Association.
Guest of Honor 2003
The guest of honor (formerly known as the focal country) is Russia. As usual, the designation brings with it much exposure, including some 300 events at the fair, not counting a range of programming around Germany in the months leading up to the fair. The high point may be the official fair opening late Tuesday afternoon, which usually draws the head of state or foreign minister of the guest of honor. (Among the more striking moments at these events: when German foreign minister Joschka Fischer spoke poignantly about the tangled and ugly history of German-Polish relations two years ago, and when Salman Rushdie made one of his first public appearances after the fatwa.)
Among the Russia-related events to be held will be a concert at the Old Opera House that will feature Russian music and theater stars and retrospective of Russian films. Exhibitions at the fair include The Gold of the Amazon (archeological finds, including treasures from Scythian mounds); Works of Communist Artwork (socialist realist artists from 1930 to 1950); and correspondence between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II. A display will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.
Some 100 Russian publishers are expected to take part in the fair and about the same number of Russian authors will participate in readings.
In a related event, this year the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the prestigious award that is funded and given by the Boersenverein, the German publishers, wholesalers and booksellers association, goes to Susan Sontag, one of few Americans to win. The elaborate presentation, broadcast live on TV, will be made Sunday at the Paulskirche in the center of Frankfurt. Previous award winners include a mix of literary, cultural and political figures, among them Albert Schweitzer, Vaclav Havel, Yehudi Menuhin and Max Frisch.
Guest of Honor 2004
In other Frankfurt news, the fair has chosen "the Arab world" as the guest of honor for next year's book fair. Director Neumann commented that the move represents "an important step in the process of intercultural dialogue."
"For us, this is a dream come true," Ibrahim al-Mouallam, president of the Arab Publishers Association, stated. The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization will be in charge of the Arab presence next year, which will include readings, exhibitions, films and concerts to be held at the show and throughout Germany. The group will emphasize Arab authors who face political pressure in their home countries.