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Book fair commentary

October 19, 2009

Everybody is talking about China. But this year's guest country wasn't the only topic of discussion at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Industry insiders had other worries as well, says DW's Gabriela Schaaf.


"Everybody comes to Frankfurt, because everybody comes to Frankfurt" - that's how publishing industry insiders describe the Frankfurt Book Fair's recipe for success. It has a certain magnetic effect. Though the rights and licensing for books can be dealt with at any time of the year, it is only at the fair that industry representatives have the opportunity to sit face-to-face. This is important for a business built on trust.

But this year, not everyone came: Several east European publishers stayed home due to a lack of state funding, and America's biggest publishing houses sent far fewer people than in other years.

Welcome to the Frankfurt Book Fair in the year of the global financial crisis.

Fair organizers maintained that the industry, overall, is still doing quite well. The lower turn-out does not represent a threat to the industry; it was just a temporary phenomenon, they said.

And the book market in Germany is doing quite well by comparison - there was talk of a 2.8 percent growth in sales compared to last year. Nevertheless, things are changing - not least, the book itself.

Rarely has there been so much talk about digital media as in this year. Even though the e-book hasn't become a best-seller yet, producers are already preparing for the big breakthrough. Germany is on the right track: The majority of publishers here keep their books in digital as well as paper form. A branch-wide online portal is already up and running. After all, nothing would be more fatal to the industry than to let all of the profit be swallowed up by Google and Co.

There was also a lot of buzz in the run-up to the fair about the appearance of this year's controversial guest country, China. In the end, the official Chinese Organization Committee struck a positive balance: Their authors were welcomed and appeared satisfied with their closed-door agreement. However, they repeated over and over again, like a mantra, that there was no censorship in China (but that authors may not break the law).

Dialogue between the Chinese delegation and the exiled authors and dissidents never took place - at least not in public. More could and should have been done on this front if there had really been a desire. The venue for the fair, which included two separate halls, spread widely apart, didn't exactly encourage discussion.

The German media, however, engaged in a lively debate on the subject, which was one positive outcome of the book fair. Never before have we heard so much about China - its problems, objections, and taboo topics.

Argentina will be the guest country in 2010, and that will surely be less touchy than this year. As the largest book producer in Latin America, it hopes to present its varied history and cultural diversity. Argentina hosts the most important book fair in Latin America, and is an important partner of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

And then, hopefully, everybody will come again to Frankfurt - because everybody comes to Frankfurt.

Author: Gabriela Schaaf is DW's literature expert (vj)

Editor: Kate Bowen