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Where the big deals are made at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Silke Bartlick / eg
October 15, 2015

Some 7,200 publishers from 104 countries are promoting their new publications during the book fair. They're not just doing it for the visitors. The world's largest event in the industry is mainly about business.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, Copyright: Silke Bartlick/DW
Image: DW/S. Bartlick

Last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Zhao Shuai negotiated over 73 cooperation deals. He hopes to top that number this year. His chances aren't bad. The publisher he works for, Beijing Culture and Language University Press, specializes in textbooks for people learning Chinese as a second language - and there are more and more of them around the world.

Southeast Asian countries are very interested, says the young man. He just sold licenses for 33 textbooks to a Vietnamese publisher.

Europe is another growing market. With economic relations between Germany and China thriving, more and more young Chinese students want to learn German. "The demand in universities for German textbooks has increased significantly," says Zhao Shuai. He is therefore not only working on selling his publisher's own learning material - whether in print or digital versions - but is also acquiring licenses for textbooks in European languages. He has an upcoming meeting with an English publisher to negotiate licenses for books for English learners.

The world's largest book trade hub

The exhibition is the most important trade hub for international publishing rights, says Petra Hardt, head of rights and licenses for the German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag. "Everyone is negotiating with everyone now. Chinese publishers are trading with American publishers, the Americans are dealing with the Norwegians, the Norwegians with the Germans, and so on. The list can go on forever," she says.

Rights to all book formats can be negotiated here, from specialized works to coffee table books to novels. Suhrkamp Verlag, whose catalogue includes major German authors, has licensed over 100,000 literary rights worldwide. And the company also acquires new international titles fitting its editorial program.

As soon as new books are published, the trading process for literary rights in other language regions begins.

This happens in Frankfurt, either right at the book fair, during tightly scheduled 15-minute meetings, or in the days prior to the event, in the city's major hotels.

But what's interesting for whom? International agents and scouts are on site with the task of finding out.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, Copyright: Silke Bartlick/DW
The demand for Thai books is limited (for now)Image: DW/S. Bartlick

"Rights licensing is flourishing," says Petra Hardt, "because all publishers want to add bestselling authors to their catalogue."

"As a result of economic development, the educated middle class is growing in many countries, and the reading tradition long established in Europe is spreading to those countries too," explains the expert from Suhrkamp Verlag. With the educational value of books long since recognized in schools, these societies are also realizing that reading is fundamental to strengthening democracy, she adds.

Accordingly, German books for children and young readers make up the most coveted licensing field for foreign countries. The genre made up 36.5 percent of the licenses sold in 2013, according to the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers.

German-language children's literature classics are no longer restricted to European bookshelves: They can now be found in the rooms of young readers around the world. One of the largest-scale buyers of children's books is China.

Many markets left to explore

Prabda Yoon is sitting at a large stand held collectively by various Thai publishers. He is the vice-president of the Publishers' and Booksellers' Association of Thailand as well as a publisher and an author. "We mainly acquire rights for novels and self-help books," he says. Not that many licenses from Thailand are sold, with the exception of certain graphic novels.

There are different explanations for this, according to Prabda Yoon, such as the language barrier and as the lack of translators. Yoon also believes contemporary Thai literature is too strongly influenced by world literature to be interesting for other countries: If authors were to develop their own voice, it might be easier to gain access to European markets, he explains.

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