On Oct. 9, the world’s largest book fair opens in Frankfurt. But for the German publishing industry, the five day event is anything but a cause for celebration as exhibitors choose to stay home amid declining sales.
Stocking the shelves with hopeful bestsellers
Long a country of avid book readers, or at least book buyers, Germany is now facing a critical drop in annual book sales.
According to the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, sales this year have declined by four percent. Hardest hit is the non-fiction sector; the market for self-help and advice books has shrunk rapidly within the last few months. And that’s bad news for a division that was accustomed to hefty and continuous growth.
Fusion and market concentration
Despite the troubles in the overall German economy, the current crisis in the publishing industry is a natural outgrowth of a home-grown problem. For years, German publishers worked according to the motto "the more books, the better." Every publishing house, no matter what it’s traditional background, was busy printing as many books on as many topics as possible. Whoever couldn’t keep up with the competition went under. And those publishers who refused to close up shop completely sought protection under a larger mother house.
But now the days of surplus have come to an end. Sales are dropping, and bookstores are overflowing with unsold books. Sigrid Löffler, literary critic and publisher of the journal "Literaturen" sees the current development with mixed views: "Naturally, it’s bad when people buy fewer books. But at the same time it’s absolutely necessary that we reduce this irrational overproduction of books on the German market."
"There are simply too many books being published, non-essential books, unnecessary books," Löffler said speaking to DW-RADIO.
Fewer, but better books?
Is the necessary response then fewer but better books? Several publishing houses seem to have adopted this as their new production tactic.
The traditional S.Fischer Verlag, for example, has reduced its output in the last two years by 25 percent, and to great success according to the company’s sales figures. The publisher, like many others, has profited primarily from the rediscovery of the "good book." Fiction works and novels, like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Günter Grass’ Crab’s Walk, were the company’s two top bestsellers.
Throughout the industry, publishers like S.Fischer are embracing a new magic formula: get back to the core values and concentrate on what you do best. For giant media corporations like Bertelsmann, this means returning to book publishing. For newspapers, it means selling their smaller affiliated publishing houses and refocusing on news media.
Expensive book fair
Not even the world’s largest book fair has been spared the economic downsizing of Germany’s publishing landscape. This year 15 percent fewer German publishers and booksellers signed up as official representatives at the trade fair, the lowest number to attend the event in years. The high price of hosting a stand as well as the expensive hotel costs in Frankfurt kept many away, says Volker Neumann, the new director of the Book Fair.
The usually high number of visitors has also declined this year, says Neumann, who is concerned about a downward trend. Already last year there were 15 percent fewer visitors than in previous years, but this was largely due to September 11.
In order to get the numbers up again, the Book Fair needs to be more firmly rooted in the public conscious, Neumann says. In an interview with DW-RADIO, Neumann explains how the Book Fair can attract more attention by becoming market-oriented. "We have to find strategic partners and form economic alliances with larger companies such as the Deutsche Bahn AG, with whom we’ve cooperated in the past" he says.
Creating a new profile
The Book Fair also needs to redefine its profile as a fair for and about books. For Neumann this means continuing to focus on the guest countries, a feature his predecessor wanted to cancel. This year’s featured country, Lithuania, is comparatively small and its literary tradition fairly obscure, but next year Neumann intends to draw a lot more attention with Russia. In the future, the Book Fair will also concentrate on special thematic highlights, such as this year’s series of podium discussions under the title "Bridges for a World Divided" which is intended to engage visitors in a dialogue on the role of books in cultural understanding.
Like the Book Fair, the entire publishing industry will have to re-examine itself and find a course that attracts people back to books and reading. The next few months will be a turbulent time of restructuring as long-standing companies refocus themselves to adapt to the new market situation. For some in the branch this development is positive. It means creativity will return to the agenda. And real book enthusiasts, publishers, book sellers and readers, for whom the book is more than just a simple product will again have the say.