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Challenges and opportunities at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Sabine Peschel
October 14, 2020

With most offerings online, this year's fair is defying the coronavirus pandemic. It's also more inclusive than ever.

Deutschland | Buchmesse Frankfurt - Eröffnungspressekonferenz
Image: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture-alliance

The Frankfurt Book Fair opened as a "Special Edition" at the Frankfurt Fairground — to an empty hall. Initially, organizers had invited a few hundred guests to the opening ceremony on October 13, yet in light of the rising number of coronavirus infections, the plan was scrapped. It's a unique year also for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The leading trade show for books, media and publishing runs from October 14-18, 2020. What can a book fair that has largely gone online achieve? How meaningful is a fair without face-to-face human encounters? Should it have been cancelled, like the Leipzig Book Fair was this spring?

A digital fair offers opportunities

Speaking at the livestreamed press conference, the director of the fair, Juergen Boos, explained that new platforms bring more people together — albeit digitally — than in previous years. 4,400 exhibitors and visitors from 120 countries have registered so far. "This includes speakers and digital participants who have never attended before," said Boos. 

The aisles and stalls of the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair
The 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair was filled with visitors and industry professionalsImage: Jens Kalaene/dpa-Zentralbild/picture-alliance

Having spoken with many publishers who wanted to attend but were unable to due to financial restrictions, visa issues, or because their governments had prevented them from leaving the country, Boos added, "The single biggest upside of our digital fair is that mostly everyone can join."  

Available online

All of the usual segments of the Frankfurt Book Fair are available in an online format. Rights trading, the commercial heart of the fair, takes place under less time pressure on digital platforms where participants can network. Interactive tools invite publishers, authors and translators to meet, with conferences having begun two days before the actual trade fair.

260 hours of programming is streamed for book lovers to enjoy anywhere. This year, Canada's book industry is highlighted. Although no Canadian authors are present, there are a number of virtual offerings including an appearance by the country's star author, Margaret Atwood. 

Guests dressed elegantly sit in a large hall
The opening night celebration in 2019 was well attendedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

The fair's commitment to freedom of expression will still be highlighted in these politically complicated times. Events are planned with Edward Snowden and the Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong.

A hybrid model for the future

Boos is certain that a virtual fair will not entirely replace an in-person event in future years — pandemic allowing. Yet organizers hope that they can learn from this year's digital version, test out what works and what doesn’t, and present a hybrid form of the fair in future years, with some components online — a version with the potential to reach a large audience. 

In-person events are vital to the international book industry, however. They allow industry professionals and visitors to connect in person, explore the literature world and perhaps attend a party or two in the evening to let loose. "As we look towards the future of the Frankfurt Book Fair, we see a mix of digital and physical elements that will become the new normal," says Boos. "I am hopeful for the future of the book business — and for the fair." 

A resilient industry

This is the first edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair for Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, head of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association. As a publisher, she focuses on the book market. For many bookstores, the months-long lockdown in most of Germany has also meant closures. 

Yet it's not all gloom and doom. The industry has proven resistant and adaptable, and has quickly found new avenues of distribution, sales and delivery, sometimes with great success. "During the pandemic, a new study shows that 17% of Germans learned for the first time that books can be ordered locally in bookstores online or by phone," reports Schmidt-Friderichs. "And around one million people have also used this option for the first time."

Karin Schmidt-Friderichs speaking from behind a podium at the press conference of the 2020 fair
Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, head of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association said the book industry had seen success in pandemic times.Image: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture-alliance

The 15% drop in sales compared to the previous year's figures has now shrunk to 4.5%. Books have proven to be crisis-proof, offering stability in difficult times. 

Demand: secure conditions for the book trade

Fighting for stable conditions for the book industry in Germany, Schmidt-Friderichs has a demand tosupport those working in creative fields : "Only clear copyright law enables authors, illustrators, translators and designers to create diverse and high-quality content," she said. 

Schmidt-Friderichs, Boos and others responsible for bringing this year's Frankfurt Book Fair to the digital realm take pride in having combined digital platforms with traditional fair elements. In doing so, the book industry has, in its own way, defied the coronavirus pandemic.