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German literary tradition makes room for two major book fairs

The city of Leipzig is once again welcoming thousands of visitors to its annual book fair. The event is a success story - even though it is in the same country as the world's largest book fair, Frankfurt.

Leipzig Book Fair 2010

Exhibitors from 36 countries are set up at the Leipzig Book Fair

When it comes to books, Leipzig is a city with tradition. For centuries, it has been a meeting place for booksellers, printers and publishers. In 1825, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association was founded there, although now it is based in Frankfurt.

The history of the modern-day Leipzig Book Fair, running this year from March 17-20, is intertwined with that of its biggest competition in Frankfurt. After losing and claiming its status as Germany's book-trade center several times over the centuries, both cities now run major book fair events. And while Frankfurt is still the world's largest book fair, Leipzig is one of the biggest in Europe, having welcomed 156,000 visitors in 2010.

Two book fairs - too many?

While the Leipzig Book Fair takes place in March, the Frankfurt fair is always organized in October. But how do they manage to both attract so many participants and so much attention, occurring in the same country and in cities that are less than 300 kilometers apart?

It could lie in their fine differences, according to Alfred Böttger, a bookstore owner in Bonn and long-time attendee of both fairs.

"The character of the Leipzig Book Fair is different," Böttger told Deutsche Welle. "It has a special charm - many, many events where authors do readings and things like that. It is a very wonderful, personal atmosphere."

At the same time, he is repeatedly amazed at the sheer size of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which attracts around 300,000 visitors and over 7,000 exhibitors each year.

Leipzig Reads logo

A reading campaign is an important part of the Leipzig fair

"The first time I went there was in 1971," Böttger said. "There is always so much to see. I used to go there two days in a row, leaving early in the morning and coming back in the evening. You discover something new every time and that can be addictive."

His views are reflected by Albrecht Luscher, head of marketing and sales at the Schattauer publishing house in Stuttgart, which specializes in books for the medical and natural science sectors. The company has been an exhibitor at the Frankfurt Book Fair since 1950 and at the Leipzig Book Fair since its early days after the German Reunification.

"The Frankfurt Book Fair is an international fair in which the book licensing business takes priority," Luscher told Deutsche Welle. "It is also a platform for our partners in the book trade and for publishing-related services. The Leipzig Book Fair is a reader-oriented event that focuses on a wide audience, with an incredible number of readings and events."

Luscher emphasized that the two fairs cannot be compared, as each has its own advantages and "charm." He said, though, that the Frankfurt fair is more business-oriented.

Looking back on a long history

Leipzig's book industry first flourished after a religious counter-Reformation movement stifled Frankfurt's book trade with censorship in the 16th century. This was to the advantage of Protestant-dominated Leipzig, which quickly took over Frankfurt's role. By the mid-17th century, the city had stolen Frankfurt's crown as the center of German book trade.

It was only with the division of Germany after World War II that Leipzig faded into the background. At the same time, Frankfurt experienced a book renaissance and its book fair has enjoyed huge success since 1949. After German Reunification in 1990, there were many calls within the sector to abandon Leipzig as a location for book fairs altogether.

However, these calls fell on deaf ears. The authorities of both Leipzig and the state of Saxony realized that the fair was an important beacon for the local economy, which was in shambles following the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. Meanwhile, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association also strongly supported the event, despite opposition from many of its own members.

A montage of images from the first post-war Frankfurt Book Fair in 1949 and 50 years later in 2009

The tradition of the Frankfurt Book Fair was restored in 1949

At the start, many were not sure what niche the Leipzig Book Fair should fill. One idea was that it should become a link to the book markets of central and eastern Europe, due to its good connections to the region dating from the communist period.

While this idea sounded good in theory, it failed in practice, as by this stage the key business exchange locations for the central and eastern European book industry were in Frankfurt, Warsaw and Moscow. There was no apparent need for Leipzig to play this role.

Turning fate around

Despite all the obstacles, luck seemed to be on Leipzig's side. German book-trading business Bertelsmann Buchclub developed marketing strategies for getting the Leipzig Book Fair off the ground, resulting in the Leipzig Reads festival, which runs alongside the fair. Today, the four-day Leipzig Book Fair hosts close to 2,000 events, making it one of the largest events of its kind in Europe.

Thanks to Leipzig Reads, the fair has "developed into an exhibition that allows a great number of events and forums to present the new books of the spring season and their authors in a far-reaching and effective way," explained Petra Büscher, spokesperson for German publishing house Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag - a long-time participant in both the Frankfurt and Leipzig fairs.

With its growing success, the Leipzig Book Fair started confidently presenting itself as a major book marketing event. This attracted favorable media response, which today is comparable to that surrounding the Frankfurt Book Fair, although somewhat less international. Leipzig's innovative approach has also set new standards, such as offering a forum for audio book producers and various symposiums.

"I find books for my shop at both fairs," said bookstore owner Böttger. "Checking out books that I wouldn't normally see and discovering little-known authors feels great - and you can do this at both events. I think both fairs play an important role."

Author: Eva Wutke / Holger Ehling

Editor: Kate Bowen

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