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The serious business of selling books

Jefferson ChaseMarch 13, 2015

This week the German publishing world and the general public have been congregating in Leipzig for that city's annual book fair. But what to make of literature as spectacle? DW’s Jefferson Chase checked it out.

The Leipzig Book Fair 2015. Copyright: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

One of the minor oddities of German culture is the widespread fascination with Messen, or trade fairs. The topics run the gamut from the electronic to the erotic, with the latter presumably providing men who want to watch strippers and porn stars at work with the threadbare pretext that they're only doing it for their jobs.

Germany has not one but two annual book trade fairs, Leipzig in the spring and Frankfurt in the fall, both of which are far more than get-togethers for specialists. On the contrary, the Buchmessen are big businesses, commanding the attention of mainstream media and attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors who don't work in the publishing industry.

Of the two, the Leipzig Book Fair - which opened on Wednesday and concludes on Sunday - is the more populist. Indeed, it's often described as an "event," a word which in German conveys the negative connotation of a mindless, superficial spectacle. Forced to take a backseat to Frankfurt for 40 years in Communist East Germany, Leipzig had reinvented itself. Nowadays, the fair coincides with the literature festival "Leipzig Reads" (the name sounds a lot better in German), which features readings all over in the city, be it the ultra-hip Moritzbastei cultural center or in everyday pizzerias and pubs.

But does the Leipzig Book Fair still serve any legitimate purpose? Do bright lights and glitz truly stir up popular interest in the medium - the printed book - whose demise has been predicted roughly as often as that of Western culture itself? To find out, I headed from Berlin to Saxony.

Mangas, meetings and loads of free stuff

Deutschland Leipziger Buchmesse 2015
The Leipzig Book Fair is considered more populist than its counterpart in FrankfurtImage: imago/Star-Media

There was no shortage of serious sides to the 2015 Leipzig Book Fair. The featured foreign country was Israel; the winner of the "Book Prize for European Understanding" was postmodernist Romanian author Mircea Cartarescu. But my first impression was that this was far more fun fair than intellectual trade convention. The two main exhibitors' halls are divided by a long passage with a concave glass roof containing a food court and a number of stages, big and small, surrounded by TV cameras.

Adding to the bizarreness was that for the second year the Leipzig fair is hosting a parallel manga comic convention. Thus, one of the massive halls was full of young people costumed as warriors and dressed-down schoolgirls in mini-skirts and pigtails dyed in impossible colors. There were even archers teaching people how to use traditional oversized Japanese bows and arrows. In general, the age of the visitors was extraordinarily young. The pensioners nodding somnolently as this or that septuagenarian held forth on the meaning of X,Y or Z were hopelessly outnumbered by teenagers on school trips whose main agenda, as they themselves made clear at teenage volumes, was to get their mitts on as much giveaway stuff as possible.

Fortunately, I ran into Anne-Bitt Gerecke, the head of the Litrix platform, an initiative of the Goethe Institute for promoting the translation of German literature and non-fiction into foreign languages. She explained what was going on underneath, or rather amidst, the babble of the masses.

"Next to the run of the public at large, the primary importance of the two book fairs is for the people in the trade," she told me. "In Frankfurt and Leipzig, you have the chance within a few days to see colleagues from other publishing houses, the press and other parts of the industry in a casual atmosphere to talk about future projects and possible collaborations and swap the odd book tip. It's nice that, even though we're all digitally plugged in everywhere, face-to-face encounters are still attractive."

And there certainly are a lot of faces who still work in publishing. For an industry supposedly in crisis, there was no problem filling four massive exhibit halls, with exhibitors ranging from the massive Bertelsmann group down to the minutely local and specific. There are whole publishing houses that seem to be devoted to books about how to become vegan - and a roughly equal number specializing in tomes about how to get the absolute maximum out of your barbeque.

The Leipzig Book Fair 2015. Copyright: Jan Woitas/dpa
The program features many events aimed at drawing young readersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

The greatly exaggerated death of the printed word

Humanity may go meat, or we may go vegetables, but either way there's no guarantee that we will still be reading books in the current form. Or is there? Gerecke sees events like Leipzig as evidence of how much people still like hardcovers and paperbacks.

"I think - and recent studies show this - that the good old-fashioned book will maintain its status alongside digital and electronic texts," she explained. "And book fairs are a very good advertisement for the printed book as a product. It's no accident that publishers devote so much energy to covers and general appearance. They're what make many readers pick up a book in the first place. You only need to imagine what a book fair would be like if people just stood around with e-readers in their hands. Hardly an audience magnet."

She has a point, I have to admit. But then again someone whose job it is to promote books probably would say that. So after returning to Berlin, I decided to test out her thesis at Buchhandlung Stadtlichter, the bookshop around the corner where I buy a lot of what I read.

The domino effect

Owner Philipp Sawallisch began by disabusing me of the notion that bookshop proprietors are pitiably anachronistic creatures teetering on the brink of extinction, pointing out that in 2013 traditional booksellers experienced a slight rise in turnover. He then confirmed that the hullaballoo around Leipzig and Frankfurt does indeed yield tangible results.

"For publishers, the two fairs are an occasion to publish a large amount of books, and that sets a domino effect in motion," Sawallisch offered. "Newspapers start running a lot of book reviews, which makes people aware of the books currently out there, and more customers come into the shop."

The Leipzig Book Fair 2015. Copyright: DW/Silke Bartlick
Does the book have a bright future? The consensus in Leipzig is 'yes'Image: DW/S. Bartlick

What's more, Sawallisch said, although more and more Germans are consuming e-books purchased via platforms like Amazon, people here still tend - for various reasons - to order and purchase their physical books from traditional bookstores.

So it seems as though, sideshow silliness notwithstanding, that the Leipzig Book Fair does indeed serve the cause of the printed word. And I recalled a brief scene from Saxony, when while wandering around the fair, I paused to take a photo of four teenaged boys sitting on the floor.

"Hey, man, what's that all about?" one of them said to me in the tone of someone who didn't want his picture taken because he was doing something that might embarrass him in front of friends.

Like his mates, he was reading a book.