“Wish you were here” — The Frankfurt Bookfair 2022 seems to love books so much it lost its focus on books
Content Futura 2023 · Part 3· A blog series · 16 weekly episodes — 1000 words/post (more or less) from 09/01/22–12/31/22 · Campfires are the mothers of all stories. Books are the shepherds of their conscience and memories. The annual Frankfurt* Bookfair — “Frankfurter Buchmesse” — ranks as one of the most relevant book fairs in the West, Europe, and globally. I spend the 2022 opening day walking its halls. A somewhat concerning experience. A quick list of observations.
of it all: by the book (no pun intended) and even a bit beyond, the organizing team of the Frankfurt Book Fair is doing everything humans can do in 2022 to make its fair a great experience beyond a simple trade show. It is investing effort into putting together attractive sideshows all across town, exhibitions, gatherings, etc., creating room for conversations and intellectual exchange, and designing a haven for all aspects of what we Germans call “Kulturträger Buch**”. They also try to stay up to date on technology and the future of publishing in any form imaginable. It’s just that over all this, over time, they seem to have forgotten about the book itself in an essential way. And the process of remembrance appears to intensify. Which gives the entire fair experience a bittersweet note overall.
for such alienation of an entire fair from its eponymous object are diverse. Some are obvious: e.g., these days, reading books has a hard stand in the growing competition for eyeballs and time spent. Especially among younger audiences, with future trend indicators not favoring books at all. In 2022, it’s also no news anymore that online retailers — above all: Amazon — have disrupted the bookselling market in many ways for a long time. What’s still left of brick & mortar booksellers undergoes constant concentration and appears critically endangered. Disruption of book distribution was and still is also created thru innovations like audiobooks, podcasts, ebooks, and smartphones or tablets used as e-readers. Plus, the pandemic has given trade fairs a hard time, as well as the Russian attack on Ukraine that has kept sending shock waves thru the global economy for almost nine months now. But moreover, some aspects aren’t evident at first glance. However, IMHO, these matter the most. The most important one for me:
I truly missed experiencing the presence of books.
“Has he gone nuts now?” you might wonder if you have been around the fair yourself or did see some newscasts about it. And, fair point, there seem to be around 397.210*** books around a Frankfurt Book fair to discover and explore in print or digital, or at least as a catalog title. But from my POV, it never felt like I would be in the actual presence of such an abundance of books on location. Overall, the entire event instead felt like a display of books instead of an opportunity to celebrate and connect with books, to get excited and enthusiastic about them, and to fall in love (again) with them. Elements I would consider necessary for any book fair that wants to keep the momentum going for the future of books.
Business lost, love lost?
I know the Frankfurt Book Fair is traditionally designed as a trade fair. A marketplace to connect all the different players of the book publishing industry, from writers to literacy agents, from printers to bookbinders, from wholesalers to local mom&pop booksellers. But over time (ca. the last 20/30 years), the whole thing intentionally got re-designed as something to be best described as a mostly successful attempt to become the #1 shopwindow for most of the (some might say: entire) global publishing industry; as well as the place to be to learn about what is opinion leading in the publishing word. And for that purpose, enabling, searching for, and attracting broad media attention. Not to forget that the whole thing is a retail exhibition as well, opening its doors to people who aren’t publishing industry staff but simply lovers of books and literature. The way I see it, somewhere along the way into this growing omnipresence, it happened that the Frankfurt Book Fair lost touch with the book in itself, IMHO.
I won’t blame publishers exhibiting their forthcoming titles if they reduce stand space in economically uncertain times (or refrain from showing up at all). Especially if a global Pandemic makes some folk uneasy with traveling to and from in-person events on top. Neither should a trade fair with a long tradition of integrating political debate refrain from continuing to do so — especially in turbulent, challenging times like the ones we live in. October 2022 isn’t the ideal time to host a trade fair. I’m also well aware that the globally exceptional German phenomenon of gigantic exhibition halls that would be considered everywhere else heavy industry production sheds can’t be transformed into cozy boutique bookstores overnight.
I think it’s fair enough to expect that thing they call the leading book fair to be an event with books at the center of it at all times. This includes the overall atmosphere and creating spaces and opportunities that enable everyone attending to connect with books in a positive and inspiring atmosphere. To truly connect visually and haptically. What presented itself to me in Frankfurt instead was, in way too many aspects, a mix of German news publishers trying to sell test subscriptions, wide stages used by German public broadcasting to produce broadcasting content, mini/micro sets all over the place offering a somewhat confusing number of on-stage talks and debates (happening in parallel, quite often drowning out each other), almost countless presentations of different lobby groups, associations, government representations, industry organization, foundations, NGOs; more or less connecting themselves to publishing in a rather loose manner. A mostly wild mix of offerings arranged in unclear ways. Together with the inability of the organizers to at least create some spaces that enable one to sit down, read, and explore books — much less to encourage exhibitors to do so — all this carnival made for a dissatisfying overall experience. In particular, if you came to Frankfurt as a media industry professional like myself, searching for inspiring new fiction stories published in exciting editions, mainly interested in an (at least relatively) non-political approach to the published material. Again: nothing wrong with books on political issues of all sorts. It’s the balance that creates true magic. (And, yes, I’m aware of the “Rights&Licenses center” upstairs; but that’s another story in my book.)
I think, especially in times of continuously growing media convergence around everything entertainment and media, especially the publishing part of the industry needs to be able to present itself within an exhibition area that is, first of all, designed to (re-)emotionalize the myth of all sorts of books for everyone attending. And that, moreover, enables those still interested in printed books (and there is a big market for that) to worship their analog fetish. Focus beats distraction.
Because let’s face it: Buying a printed book is not about buying information in the first place anymore. You do it simply because you love it. You want to feel, touch, smell, admire and collect. As well as buying and reading an E-book these days is a very conscious decision. Each consumer decision pro book is an active choice to set a monothematic focus on consuming one media type. It’s the antithesis to the everything-everywhere-anytime-snippet-share-”showmyselfie”-world of our anyhow omnipresent mobile app devices.
Hence, nowadays, there is much more need for an exhibition marketplace that supports a sense of detail, interpersonal connection, and a safe space to focus on outstanding, out-of-the-ordinary publishing projects. A place that fluently enables clients and audiences to differentiate and switch consciously between entertainment commodities, state-of-the-art literature, and … ahem … all these other “associated” offerings (as far as they are needed nonetheless for specific reasons); between digital and physical formats. Between aspiration and fun. Between duty and joy.
The magic trick, the “One Ring to rule them all,” is not to lock out the digital world from all this — but to integrate it all into one cozy, inspiring, analog admiring co-existence.
with the times of big box book selling coming to an end, the big box Buchmesse needs an overhaul likewise. Back to basics, back to books.
And what about that sale?
For years, it remains a mystery to me the Frankfurt Bookfair still hasn’t created a solution that enables visitors like me to buy any book I see right on the spot. Yup, I can see at least some challenges to this idea on the backend (German Buchpreisbindung****, local sellers back home fear of losing retail volume, etc.) But given the German publishing industry runs one of the best 1-day-book-delivery operations in the world (they had that in place long before Amazon arrived). And given the bookfair is organized by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, which proudly hosts heads of state every year (e.g., this year, including Germanies Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier as well as King Felipe VI. und Queen Letizia of Spain, and, hence, has access to people in the highest offices to ask for exceptions). Given all that, I believe the organizers should be able to overcome all challenges and be competent in 2022 to offer visitors like myself timely, more convenient options to buy the books I see on the spot instead of collecting smartphone pictures as mental notes for private orders from back home or the occasionally available booth sale that guarantees for a lot of schlepping. Why not offering a collaboration with local bookstores via established order direct services of the publishing industries? “Buy here, get delivered to your frontdoor by next week!”
In 2022, “Support your local bookstore” banners affixed outside to exhibition halls or sprayed “Anti Online Shopping”-claims might not be enough anymore to guarantee attractive prospects for the entire book (publishing) industry. Like myself, many people love books. But we hope for some more easy love in return from those who make them.
*Frankfurt / Main, Germany
**Kulturträger — culture bearer … culture carrier … culture custodian … culture guardian …
***At least that’s last year’s total # of books at the fair as listed by the organizers.
**** Buchpreisbindung — Within Germany, books are offered for one fixed price all over the country. The main reason for this is to protect books and their inherent cultural value as well as smaller and cutting-edge sophisticated publishing undertakings. A set of exemptions allows for differing from this rule.