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Frankfurt Book Fair | Inside Publishing


The Frankfurt Book Fair

Chris Holifield 2017

Book fairs are an important part of the way publishing works. No book fair is more central to the publishing year than the giant annual international get-together known as 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.. This brings publishers from all over the world to do business together.

Increasingly, publishers time the announcement of expensive acquisitions and other big deals to tie in with Frankfurt, to achieve maximum publicity. But as publishers pack their bags for Germany every October, the focus will be on rights sales.

The Rights Fair

Frankfurt has always been the market-place for the sale of translation rights to publishers from all over the world. The publishers’ subsidiary rights staff will have a marathon schedule to contend with, involving a continuous flow of half-hour appointments for the six days of the fair. It’s a really hard grind – just imagine selling the same list of books every half-hour for several days!

This contact is vital for the rest of the year. The rights people have face-to-face meetings and the chance to find out what is really going on at the publishing houses they are selling to. Editors can gauge what is happening at the houses they're buying from. Even in the age of email, face-to-face meetings are still important.

A Buyer’s Market?

The Fair is also important for sales and distribution, with new deals for one publisher to sell another publisher’s books announced or at least negotiated.

Some top editors from the big publishers are at the Fair and get involved in frantic auctions for book rights although their role is less clear. The accepted wisdom is that the only thing you can say for sure about any book you buy at the Fair is that you will have paid too much for it. Editors also often have wall-to-wall appointments. They are looking for books at Frankfurt which they will buy during or after the Fair.

All the Fun of the Fair

It is the editors who have to do the walking. It can take as much as fifteen minutes to reach the next appointment in the vast expanse (190,000 square metres in all) of different halls that the Fair covers. However, they don’t have to man the stall, unlike the rights people, so they can get back to the hotel earlier or go home when they are finished. So editors enjoy the fun of the fair with less of the grind.

For young editors, it’s a treat to go to Frankfurt. For the veterans, it’s a good opportunity to moan, as well as to renew publishing contacts from all over the world. The number of exhibitors tends to grow but at times of economic recession it falls, as you'd expect.

Other Book Fairs

The London Book Fair is now seen as the top spring rights fair and it is particularly popular with European publishers. It’s shorter and a bit less pressurised than Frankfurt. The American BookExpo usually takes place each year at the beginning of June. It has been quite important internationally, but has recently tended to resume its old identity as an American book trade fair.

There are exotic book fairs, such as that in Peking and the rather popular French Salon des Livres. But the most enjoyable fair of them all is thought by many to be the Bologna Book Fair, which every April gives everyone involved in children’s publishing the chance to spend a few days ‘working’ in Italy and looking at lovely children’s books.

So, should you Pack your Bags?

If you’re an author, the advice is not to go to Frankfurt or to any other book fair unless you are specifically invited to attend by your publisher. Your publisher (if you have one) won’t have time to talk to you and it’s dispiriting to see so many thousands of books written by other people. These days some book fairs have programmes for indie authors but Frankfurt is not usually one of them.

If you don’t have a publisher or agent, Frankfurt has to be the worst place in the world to try to find one. Publishers are too busy talking to each other and to agents to talk to you. This is, after all, a trade fair. Even the agents are holed up in the huge, but almost impenetrable, international agents' centre. Security can be worse than at airports. Nobody has time to read anything. You may think that book fairs are about authors and writing, but they're really more focused on publishers' wheeling and dealing.  

Chris Holifield