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Surviving Another Frankfurt Book Fair

From year to year, the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) maintains its lofty position as the top international publishing event because of its sheer size, length (five days), and longevity (since 1949). In total, the Fair encompasses more than 150,000 square meters of floor space divided between four massive halls, each with several levels. This year, the Fair hosted 7,100 exhibitors from more than 100 countries, and attracted 277,000 visitors.

Matt Sutherland
Foreword Reviews Editor In Chief Matt Sutherland enjoys the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Brexit, European immigration concerns, American politics, and global relations overall were the dominant show floor topics in 2016, but the general mood seemed positive and optimistic. For Americans, the FBF is always a healthy reminder of the vibrancy and sophistication of Europe’s publishing industry, and the warm business relations between the European Union nations. Many tens of thousands of brief meetings take place over the course of five days. Friends and business associates reconnect. Laughter is the common language. Moreover, an hour or two spent wandering the aisles of Hall 4 and 5 offers an exotic view of publishing in places like Asia, Iran, South America, Africa, Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Arab world. The dizzying effect of hearing dozens of languages only enhances Frankfurt’s appeal. Even so, American visitors will find themselves relieved that nearly all FBF attendees speak some, if not perfect, English.

New this year, FBF organizers presented THE ARTS+, a two thousand square meter pavilion of labs, presentations, and workshops focused on the creative industries. With healthy support from Europeana and the EU Commission’s Directorate General for Culture, THE ARTS+ included a museum and more than 150 speakers from 16 countries.

The Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor in 2016 was Flanders and the Netherlands. Eight locations around the city of Frankfurt hosted displays and events to showcase the literature, culture, and economic opportunities of those two unique places, though the focal point was the Guest of Honor Pavilion which featured 99 Dutch and Flemish authors in all genres.

On Thursday morning, October 20, I attended an impressive ceremony in the Messe’s Congress Center to formally announce France as the 2017 Guest of Honor. Manuel Valls, Prime Minister of France, took the podium for several minutes to speak about the irreplaceable importance of cultural relations between countries, beyond political and economic relations. “Culture is necessary to live,” he said. Other speakers included Anne Tallineau, Executive Director of the Institute of France, Paul de Sinety, Commissioner General of France, Peter Feldman, Mayor of Frankfurt, and Jurgen Boos, Chairman of the Frankfurt Book Fair, among others.

Last year, the Frankfurt Book Fair reduced its footprint and closed Hall 8, seeking to facilitate more international conversations. Many exhibitors, particularly those in Hall 8 (primarily English language publishers), suspected the Fair was making preparations for leaner years to come. However, the numbers this year defied that notion, and were up a record-breaking 17 percent. Europe still has some weak spots, but is showing signs of recovery from the difficult years after 2008. Not unexpectedly, the Brexit-caused fall in the value of the pound has served to make Britain’s publishing industry more competitive, especially for those publishers who export more than they import. But generally, the UK’s publishing bigwigs are still unnerved by Brexit. Time will tell.

In interviews, Jurgen Boos, Director of the Fair, lamented that the climate for freedom of expression and freedom to publish is getting worse, not better. He hopes that the FBF continues to be the gift that keeps on giving—a platform to promote the ideals of freedom at a time when people around the world seem to be building more barriers and increasingly conservative regimes continue to constrain speech.

The Foreword crew hosted two booths again this year: the Foreword Indie Press Collective in Hall 6.0, and the Children’s Books USA stand in Hall 6.1 where many international children’s book publishers exhibit. The four levels of Hall 6 mainly host English-speaking exhibitors and the Literary Agents & Scouts Center. The “indie” aspect of Foreword’s collective stand is appealing to Frankfurt’s international publishing set. Agents and scouts and general attendees are heartened to see that indie publishing is thriving in the US.

Foreword’s publisher, resident foreign rights agent, and my spouse, Victoria Sutherland, has been attending the FBF for 23 years and I’ve been coming here for 20 years or so. In my bathroom and cafe jaunts away from the Foreword collective, I stopped for a moment to chat with friends and acquaintances from a great many small and midsize US publishers and university presses in the aisles near Foreword.

Here’s a few bulleted snippets of happenings and sightings at the Fair from the Foreword perspective:

Marty and Judy Shepard, publishers at The Permanent Press, were positioned just a few feet down the aisle and over the course of the Fair we maintained a fairly steady conversation about books, poetry, politics, Frankfurt’s best Indian food restaurant, and the importance of reviews. At 82, Marty’s wit gets drier and sharper. He shared an endless number of stories about his authors, the early days of The Permanent Press, and what his 2017 catalog holds in store.

  • Tony Mulliken, from Midas Public Relations, stopped by to chat about his client Hannah Fielding and the review she earned for her romance novel in the Fall issue of Foreword. He also represents the Sharjah International Book Fair, so he’s always primed to talk of his travels to the Middle East.

  • Shelf Awareness’s co-founder Jenn Risko found a few minutes in her busy schedule to stop by and chat about her company’s phenomenal growth. Shelf Awareness sent an unfathomable 50 million emails last year, their 10th.

  • Across the aisle, religious publisher Lion Hudson hosted a steady stream of agents and passersby. Some of their booth signage stated “Proud to be publishing in over 200 languages.”

  • German writer Rafael Badziag asked if we might know of a US publisher who might be interested in his manuscript for The Billion Dollar Secret. In the past few years, he’s interviewed 24 billionaires and the book contains “the mindsets, success rituals, essential tools, and innovative techniques that these influential people” have developed over their lifetimes.

To be sure, Frankfurt is a vital gear in the publishing world’s economic engine. As a publisher of any size, being part of the scene is sound business. The bottom line in foreign rights is to strengthen relationships with as many publishers across as many territories as possible. For lesser-known titles, authors, and publishers, visibility at Frankfurt is an important first step onto the global stage.

At least one hundred agents visited the Foreword and CBUSA booths with Jennifer Szunko, Victoria, or me fielding questions and pointing out titles of interest. Most of the visitors were utilizing time in between appointments to “window shop” the books we hosted, which were displayed by category. This genre arrangement makes it easy for them to get directly to the types of titles they are interested in. Many left business cards and requested additional information.

As for my general impression of what genres attracted the most interest in Frankfurt this year, I’d say young adult, business, health, spirituality, and some fiction titles, along with children’s picture books. Award winning books also caught the eyes of international publishers intrigued by the seals on the books. Asian publishers, especially, ask about children’s and YA books in series. Many were looking for books with a moral lesson. Some asked for nonfiction projects, ideally, science related.

There are literally thousands of workshops and classes scheduled during the Frankfurt Book Fair. The opportunity to meet with and learn from experts is unbelievably valuable, and, should you be able to attend the next FBF, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take advantage of the programs offered there. The 69th annual Frankfurt Book Fair will take place October 11-15, 2017.

The FBF is exhausting—one set up day, five days of show time, break down, in addition to several late night dinners with friends and clients—but I always relish my time at the show. The FBF also offers a superb chance to see the latest book-related digital innovations, not that I can wrap my brain completely around any of the apps, devices, and platforms.


Matt Sutherland
Matt Sutherland is Editor In Chief at Foreword Reviews. You can e-mail him at matt@forewordreviews.com.

Matt Sutherland

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