Skip to Content

All the fun of the Fair

6 October 2014

We're just coming up to the Frankfurt Book FairWorld's largest trade fair for books; held annually mid-October at Frankfurt Trade Fair, Germany; First three days exclusively for trade visitors; general public can attend last two., which starts on Wednesday. and publishers from all over the world are about to converge on Frankfurt for the annual jamboree. It is remarkable really how well this big fair has retained its international dominance in the face of digitisation and instant communication.

The Frankfurt Book Fair dates back more than 500 years. Soon after Gutenberg had developed printing in movable letters at Mainz near Frankfurt, the first book fair was held by local booksellers. Until the end of the 17th century it was the most important book fair in Europe, but it was then eclipsed by the Leipzig Book Fair. After the Second World War II, the first Frankfurt Book Fair was held again in 1949 (as Leipzig was in the eastern sector) and Frankfurt has regained and developed its pre-eminence.

Even in an age of books fairs, this is the one that everyone in the publishing world wants to go to and it is extremely international, although on the days when it is open to them the German halls house a buzzing national fair, attended by large numbers of the public in this bookish country.

For most people it's a rights fair pure and simple, though, with the publishers' rights staff booked solid throughout the fair, with scarcely a moment to grab a bite, as one appointment after another arrives in front of them every half-hour. Agents reside in the strictly inaccessible International Rights Centre, which cannot be breached unless you have an appointment.

The rights people go through their list time after time, working to raise interest in the forthcoming books. If you have the Book (or Books) of the Fair, you can sell a great many translation rights, as Frankfurt bidding fever takes over. Large publishers frown on the idea of bidding big at the Fair, but there's always a small number of books which the editors can persuade themselves are potential bestsellers - not least because it justifies the big outlay involved in sending them to Frankfurt at all. Even then it's not what it used to be, when most of the work was supposedly done in the Frankfurter Hof bar late at night. Now it's a more sober world.

And it's really only this year that the Fair authorities have started to cater for indie authors, who will have their own series of events. No doubt the Fair can make money out of aspiring authors, like everyone else seems to be doing, but it's best not to think that Frankfurt will provide the opportunity to talk to publishers - they'll all be far too busy talking to each other. Frankfurt is also eye-wateringly expensive, with a stranglehold on accommodation which has to be booked throughout the Fair, so it's not easy to go unless someone else is paying for it.

Inside Publishing on the Frankfurt Book Fair.