The 2003 Frankfurt Book Fair opened with a 4% increase in the number of exhibitors over 2002, and after a slow start on Wednesday both floor traffic and deal activity began to pick up. Although no big book emerged, the most talked about projects included an autobiography by Woody Allen (that some doubt would ever be written) and a $3,500 title about Muhammad Ali, who was at the fair to promote the Taschen project .But the early buzz at the convention wasn't about hot titles, but rather about a meeting between Frankfurt Book Fair director Volker Neumann and the heads of English-language publishing trade groups. Neumann, in looking at the 20 or so people gathered around his office, representing the largest English-language publishers in the world—the U.K., Canada and the U.S.—said, "With all due respect to your position, we do not see that an experiment of adding two hours should be a reason to call into question the general character of the Frankfurt Book Fair."
But the experiment, in the form of a Friday invitation to the general public and longer opening hours to accommodate them, is exactly what the assembled were questioning. Questions rippled through the hour-long meeting and even to other quarters of the show. "It's not about two hours. It's about the feeling that this is an early symptom of changes to come," said one of the leaders at the meeting, adding, "We're all for an experiment. We just don't want to be guinea pigs."
The extra hours, along with what some say are continued high costs and poor positioning of the rights center, have become flashpoints for what the trade groups worry is a problem of communication and possibly even of vision. At the meeting, the first face-to-face discussion since Pat Schroeder sent her strongly worded letter to Neumann in September complaining about the Friday hours, the criticisms were measured, and the discussion, largely through a translator, reasonable, with all agreeing to meet again in the winter about next year's fair.
Still, it was unclear whether Neumann had further plans to shift to a more consumer-oriented show or whether he was just tinkering with an old formula and would not take the changes any further. Neumann's suggestion that English-language publishers could benefit from a German consumer market—noting the success of the English-language Harry Potter in Germany—was unsettling to some. Ronnie Williams, head of the U.K.'s Publishers Association, replied, "People come here to sell rights. If you dilute that, you're giving them less of a return on their investment."
Schroeder agreed: "On the other side of the Atlantic we see this as a rights fair. We're worried that we're getting dragged into a consumer fair." Others expressed concern that the addition of the two hours has "triggered a cost-benefit analysis" and could lead to a re-evaluation and even retrenchment by publishers. One wondered whether some will "either do what St. Martin's did and not come one year, or they'll send fewer people." Random House sent about 25 fewer people this year than in 2002 and Scholastic cut its representation by 25%. Penguin Group USA, sources said, is considering cutting back its attendance next year. As for St. Martin's future plans, company head John Sargent said, "we made our decision and we will see after the fair whether it was a good one or a bad one."
On the subject of exhibitor costs, Neumann admitted that "not a lot has been done in 2003," largely, he said, because many publishers had already made their reservations before he began seeking changes. Next year, he said, publishers could expect a reduction of the minimum stay at most hotels to three or four nights as well as some per-night discounts.
HC in Venture with Atlas
HarperCollins used the fair to announce (with a launch party the first night) a new joint venture with author/publisher James Atlas for a series of biographies called Eminent Lives. Atlas previously published a series of Brief Lives, at Penguin, using a formula of notable writers writing on notable past figures of their own choosing.
The new series, which will begin publication at HC branches worldwide, is set to launch in the fall of next year, with Atlas serving as series editor and as president of Atlas Books. Susan Weinberg in the U.S. and Arabella Pike in London will direct the series. It will begin with eight books, including Bill Bryson on Shakespeare, Francine Prose on Caravaggio, Christopher Hitchens on Jefferson and Michael Korda on Ulysses S. Grant.