Monday, 20 October 2008

All the Fun of the Fair - a summary from the Frankfurt Book Fair

Sunday was the final day of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest in the publishing industry, and wrapped up five days worth of meetings, interviews, forum presentation panels, deals, signings, highs, lows, late nights and early starts, dark beer and Brezen for another year.

There is some discussion as to whether the current financial market crisis made its mark and flattened the Fair, but overall, people I asked seemed very upbeat. The Usborne Rights Manager was quoted as saying it was, "'as good a Fair as there ever was." Their Publishing Director, Mrs. Jenny Tyler said, "Of course we have still to go back and see how that translates financially." What she foresees, was a potential reduction in the 'top end' of advances, vast sums awarded to debut books, from publishers who may be more cautious whether they would ever be made them back in sales. It sounds as though some common sense will return to the markets, both on Wall Street and in Bookland. And reassuringly she added, " There is always room for good, new talent, whatever the market."

Talking to a member of staff from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a leading German newspaper, I was told that they had felt that overall attendees numbers were ever so slightly up, (Friday had 78, 218 attendees, (+ 8,1%) - as many visitors as never before in the history of the Frankfurt Book Fair), and they had many good meetings about their own publications. The primary function of the fair is networking and they are still doing that. "It gives you a chance to meet the people you only ever email." However he had repeatedly been asked about, "e-books, e-books and e-books." Oh, and "digitisation."

I found it interesting to view an article in the Bookseller from the 2007 Fair about the absence of the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader. The same article could have been from 2008. "Did you see one?" "No, did you?" "My colleague bought one in the US..." This year they have at least been sighted if not yet commonly in Europe, although everyone talks about them with some degree of reservation. I've also recently read of the British invented, German built Plastic Logic Reader. Let's see how that compares when it starts to ship in the second quarter of 2009. Touted as primarily a business reader in US letter / A4 format, I can see the plastic and larger scale format becoming popular with readers of any genre, and in generations to come, future schoolbags will be considerably lighter.

Google Books stand staff were eager to demonstrate their online offering, which has been taken up by "over twenty thousand publishers." The search engine giant enables you to read, but not download, anything from 20% upwards of books online. My sense is that for contemporary popular books there is little value add compared to say, Amazon's search inside, but that it is an opportunity for books for which there is no longer any marketing effort, to be made available in online searches, and then be discovered by potential buyers whom otherwise may have had no easy way of finding each other. A bit like an online dating service for backlisted books.

And what was otherwise visually impressive? The Turkey exhibition / forum centre was a fascinating mix of media, content and a pleasure to view, full of large scale author images, coloured backdrops and simple photographs. It made you feel as if great authors were looking over your shoulder at the forum and panel discussions in host language, Turkish.

They included amongst others, having a sense of humour with Metin Üstündag, the Turkish cartoonist and comics artist. An interesting choice of subject at a German event, displaying his own sense of humour perhaps. His work appears among others in the satirical Girgir and Penguen magazines. In 2002, he had to appear before the Penal Court in Istanbul on the charge of his cartoons being "against the common moral" in his comic book 'Sunday Lovers'.

The cook book displays in various Halls were often mouthwatering, but what stole the show on the last day wherever you went, were Manga fans. The manga (the Japanese term for comics) market is big business in German young adults aged from twelve up, and hundreds attended the Fair and enjoyed free entry to the German CosPlay Championship. Cosplay is the Japanese derived abbreviation from the English 'Costume play', and is a growing trend in Europe and the USA following its import from Japan, together with the Manga wave of comics and anime (the TV / film versions) which arrived at the end of the Nineties.

Since its launch in 2000, the Comics Centre in Hall 3.0 J 807 has become one of the really big attractions for the Frankfurt Book Fair public and the holding of the “German Cosplay Championship” is a highlight on the Sunday. The most popular manga is still imported, but there is some European and US talent which sells well, produced by publishers such as Egmont. The readers start younger, with something like Disney's 'Witch' and go on to read love story style manga, by Alexandra Voelker. They come in all genres, but 70% of their readership is female. The trick for the publishers and distributors alike, will be to see if they can sustain the European and US readership beyond their early twenties, as is done in Asia. If you consider it alongside current trends in video and gaming, e-books and an increasing readership who have grown up with technology, the trend for manga and anime will not be going away just yet.

Next year's Fair ( 14th -18th October 2009 - book your accommodation now) the Guest of Honour is China - so I expect we'll see more about Manga, and less about Gao Zhisheng whose German version of his book, A China More Just, was promoted with flyers handed out at the entrance this year. I will be interested to see which authors and works are selected for public display. By opening the borders to reader and writer exchange through invitations such as this I believe, small chips are made in the barriers created by censorship and translation. 2009 is the twenty year anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall - we will have to wait until then to see what the Book Fair will mean for the 'great wall' of China.

The Book Fair is typically thought of as an exhibition organized by publishers or booksellers to promote the sale of books. It is primarily a trade event, and although the weekend is open to the public I would not recommend it to authors or illustrators intent on hand delivering their work to agents or editors 'sitting round waiting for the next big thing'. Everyone there in a business capacity, has fully booked schedules, skipped meals and too little sleep. As Jenny Tyler said, "We just can't take time out. But it may be good to get an idea of which publishers do what and choose one to whom you want to submit to in the usual manner." It is certainly an opportunity to gain an understanding of the intensity of the industry and of the workings of the business, but go to watch, listen and learn. And take nothing with you.

The event is for action, and the intense activity of the event made me think the verb is an apt a way to describe it:

Fair. Verb. - join so that the external surfaces blend smoothly, bring together, join - cause to become joined or linked; "join these two parts so that they fit together"

2008 was the Book Fair’s 60th anniversary and was an event which enables the joining of books and readers. How smoothly that happens and how it will be achieved in the future, will be determined by all the chaos in between - agents, editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, and Google, Kindle & co. The Book Fairs of the next sixty years may look different, but the benefits from connecting with international colleagues face-to-face and from getting a hands-on current understanding of the publishing world are tangible when you talk to anyone working at the stands. That supports my belief that it will remain a place to connect with people to whom books truly matter, regardless of format, for at least the next sixty.

Cosplay image © Frankfurt Book Fair/Baptista

Exhibition & Hall image © Frankfurt Book Fair/Heimann


Mike French said...

Brilliant insiders look Jen - sounds like it was amazing and you enjoyed yourself :-)

Paul said...

I was talking with someone this morning and speculating what sort of effect the financial crisis might or might not have on publishing, when hey presto! your article covers the issue. It's great to get a flavour of the fair, which I've heard so much about -- cheers, Jen.

Stella said...

I wonder about those digital readers replacing actual books. I suppose it's more eco-friendly, but I'm concerned that reading so much from a screen would have harmful consequences for eyesight - maybe even cause migraines, etc.

Excellent piece, Jen. Sounds like you had a great time!