Frankfurt to host thousands as world’s oldest book fair returns

A woman stacks books at the Frankfurt Book Fair
A woman stacks books during the 2021 Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow
The Frankfurt book fair - the world's largest and oldest - opens its doors this week to a publishing industry in robust health after a pandemic boosted book sales, but Covid is still casting a shadow over the conference.

After going almost fully digital last year to curb the coronavirus spread, this year’s fair is returning as an in-person event but will still be a more muted version of past editions.

Fewer international exhibitors and authors are descending on the western German city than before Covid, and much of the action will be online.

Fair director Juergen Boos, who will host the opening press ceremony on Tuesday, said “it’s still not a normal book fair” but offered a chance for the industry to “reconnect”.

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It comes as the book business has been “doing pretty well over the past 18 months”, he said, with people in many countries using the slower pace of life during lockdown to read more – adolescents especially.

“Young people didn’t just want to play computer games all day,” Boos recently told reporters.

In the United States, printed book sales rose by more than eight percent in 2020 to record their best year in a decade, according to the NPD research group.

READ ALSO: How Frankfurt is holding the world’s largest book fair in a pandemic

Growth was driven by teen categories but also adult non-fiction, as people turned to cookbooks and DIY books to pass the time at home.

In Germany, the European Union’s largest book market, bookstores used the shutdowns to expand their online sales, leading to a 20 percent jump in internet revenues to 2.2 billion euros ($2.5 billion). Audio and e-books also saw double-digit growth.

“The book industry has passed the Covid stress test,” said Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, chairwoman of the German Publishers and Booksellers
Association.

“Books can fulfil important needs in challenging times,” she said. “They provide answers to questions… can offer food for thought, give courage and hope.”

The fair, which opens to trade visitors first before welcoming the general public later in the week, runs until Sunday.

The kick-off was immediately marred by controversy, however, after Germany’s Jasmina Kuhnke, a black author and anti-racism activist, cancelled her planned appearance.

Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair
Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, says it has been “back to business” for the publishing industry, but not “back to normal”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

She said she was protesting the presence of a far-right publisher at the fair, after receiving threats from the far-right scene.

But Boos defended the decision to give a platform to right-wing publishing companies.

“We don’t have to like it, but it has to be possible because freedom of expression, freedom to publish are the highest good to us.”

Christmas concerns

Books “proved to be a particularly resilient and popular medium during the pandemic,” Boos said.

But the news isn’t all good. The book trade, with global revenues of around $100 billion annually, isn’t immune to the worldwide shortages of raw materials and supply chain disruptions roiling national economies as they rebound from the coronavirus downturn.

With the crucial Christmas holiday season fast approaching, publishers are sounding the alarm about paper and cardboard shortages, bottlenecks at shipping ports and a lack of lorry drivers.

“I fear that this Christmas people cannot be sure of getting any book they want at short notice,” Jonathan Beck, head of renowned German publishing house C.H. Beck, told the Handelsblatt financial daily. He also warned that books could become more expensive.

Atwood phoning in

This week’s Frankfurt gathering is the latest example of trade fairs stirring back to life, and comes after the German city of Munich welcomed 400,000 visitors to the IAA auto show in September.

READ ALSO: Not just for petrolheads: German motor show steers towards sustainability

Nevertheless, the pandemic will loom large over the Frankfurt fair.

A man cleans shelves at the reopening of the Frankfurt Book Fair
A man cleans shelves at the reopening of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Daily visitor numbers are capped at 25,000 and fairgoers must show proof of vaccination, a negative test or prove that they have recovered from Covid.

Masks must also be worn inside the conference centre and the aisles will be wider to avoid the usual shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at publishers’ booths.

More than 1,500 exhibitors from more than 70 countries will be present, well below the 7,500 exhibitors from over 100 countries that came in 2019. Just 200 authors are travelling to Frankfurt.

Uncertainty about travel restrictions and virus concerns are keeping many large publishing houses and big-name writers away, particularly from the US, Asia and South America.

As a result, much of the networking and haggling over licensing and translation rights will be done on digital platforms.

Canada meanwhile is getting a second chance as guest of honour, after last year’s Covid curbs upended the country’s plans for the fair.

A delegation of Canadian authors including Michel Jean, Dany Laferriere and Michael Crummey will be taking part in events open to the general public.

But Canada’s star author Margaret Atwood of “The Handmaid’s Tale” fame, a Frankfurt regular in recent years, will only be appearing via video link.

The Frankfurt book fair, which runs until Sunday, is the world’s oldest publishing trade event and dates back to the Middle Ages.


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