Amid Post-Book-Fair Grumbling, London Gains on the Buchmesse
“Deplorable, but not lethal” was the official word on southbound exhibitor numbers at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair — they tumbled 4%, a figure direly reported to the trade as “the biggest decline in the fair’s 54-year history” — and it made for a condign summation of the world-weary Buchmesse as a whole. Stung from savage hotel price hikes, bummed out by a guttering German book trade, and exhausted by bivouacs in a rights center so far-flung it may as well have been in Köln, attendees winging home from this year’s fair packed along plenty of their usual post-fair grumbling, and then some.
“Of course the fair isn’t as important as before, simply because you’ve heard about the interesting stuff beforehand via email or fax,” says Merete Borre of Danish publisher Lindhardt og Ringhof, in a typical observation. “The London Book Fair is getting more and more important for us, as well as the fair in Gothenburg. We’ll need to go to all three places.” Those closer to home were in the same boat. “The general consensus is that Frankfurt is extremely expensive — the hotels, the stands, the hoopla — and the number of people attending kept small,” notes Tim Bent, Senior Editor at St. Martin’s Press. “From an editorial point of view, the London fair has taken on nearly equal importance to Frankfurt.” Then, too, Germany’s economic doldrums left many visitors feeling especially burned. “Lots of agents and foreign rights people were unpleasantly surprised that the Germans have stopped paying big money, and some have stopped buying altogether,” says German agent Michael Meller. “Quite a number of people haven’t recovered their Frankfurt expenses, and are beginning to realize that the scene has changed — whether for good or just temporarily.” Frankfurt, one publishing executive says, “doesn’t drop to the bottom line.”
With the buzz ever amping at London, and a nagging feeling that Americans may be sneaking toward the Buchmesse sidelines, that perennial post-fair question — Is Frankfurt becoming dispensable? — may pack a little more punch this time around. Frankfurt brass, for their part, are working hard to soften the blow. “We are certainly concerned about the price increases that we have seen,” Frankfurt Book Fair Director Volker Neumann tells PT, “and we are in very tough discussions with the hotels in Frankfurt about their pricing policies.” Fair planners are also working round the clock to restructure the layout of the German halls, relocate the agents’ center, and do a better job of delineating different sectors of publishing. But by no means, says Neumann, is Frankfurt ready to concede the title of the world’s best book convention. “London and BookExpo America are still confined to the English-speaking world in their relevance,” Neumann maintains, pointing to a rising international crowd at Frankfurt — 110 countries came this year — and the fact that Frankfurt has about twice as many UK exhibitors as London. Plus, with 265,000 visitors (up over last year, but still down from 2000), it’s still nearly ten times the size of BEA.
Foreign attendees may be skeptical about the number of deals going down, but they’re still behind the fair. “Frankfurt is now more a public relations book fair,” says Ornella Robbiati, Editor-in-Chief of Italian publisher Sonzogno. “We get 90% of the manuscripts by email before the fair.” Nonetheless, she adds, Italians are in no way prepared to bail out, and she says even American drop-outs would do little to affect European participation. (Robbiati’s bigger concern is the American throngs in London. “I’m worried by the constant increase in the number of Americans there — it’s impossible to see them all. In London I must see English publishers and agents, so I can only keep half a day for the US, no matter how many Americans are there.”)
For some Americans, too, the fair still packs appeal. “Frankfurt helps you get over the sound barrier,” says Nan Talese, President, Publisher, and Editorial Director of Nan A. Talese Books. She doggedly attends Frankfurt and hasn’t been to London for the last two shows, and has her own serendipitous tale: she dreamed up a book concept with Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner writing about the creation of the “Newman’s Own” line. She signed the book up just before Frankfurt, and with no written description, sold the project to Chinese publisher Rex Howe of Locus. “This would not happen in London or at BEA,” Talese says.
Even in the world of children’s publishing, Frankfurt is holding its own against the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the major confab of the kids’ business. Maureen Golden, a partner in children’s packager Orange Avenue, notes that the four-year-old company regularly exhibits at Frankfurt and finds a much stronger response from prospective publishers than at Bologna. However, Bologna boasted an 8% increase in foreign children’s publisher visitors last year, placing both fairs in an apparent win-win relationship. “My advice would be to go to Bologna for children’s, go to Frankfurt for children’s, and go to London for children’s,” adds Susan Katz, President and Publisher of the Children’s Division at HarperCollins. “I think you learn things from the adult market, and you see things that might work in the children’s market. I can’t tell you how many times while I was at Frankfurt I said to myself: If I learn nothing else, this one thing would be worth it.”
‘Massive’ Growth at London
While Frankfurt may still be the biggest, it’s not necessarily the best, say London partisans. And the numbers are impressive. Exhibitor space at the last London Book Fair was up 6%. Bookseller attendance rose 9.6%. Visitors were up 1.4%. And press attendance shot up a whopping 36%. “For a number of years now we’ve been getting more and more support, especially from America but also from countries around the world,” says Alistair Burtenshaw, Exhibition Director for the London Book Fair. “European attendance has been increasing rapidly. International collectives of overseas publishers have also grown massively.” The collective stand from France now counts as the show’s largest exhibiting company, he says. Moreover, next year’s gig will see “very large new presences” from Belgium and Greece, while China has also been growing its presence year-over-year. Then there’s the fair’s International Rights Centre, which drew 114 North American companies last year, up 28%. And as for LBF 2003, coming March 16? It’s already 93% sold.
“With the continuing success of London, and with ever more year-round rights business, people are realizing that there doesn’t have to be a single show where you get all your business done,” says packager and Publishers Lunch founder Michael Cader. “The lesson of London has been that if you work from a place where there is already a natural concentration of publishing, you’ve got a great nucleus to build on.” To that end Cader, along with industry consultant Mike Shatzkin, has been working on the rights show tentatively titled “Publishing in New York” (formerly “Frankfurt in New York”), which would bring agents, editors, packagers, and others together in New York in May, at a time when many of them swing through the city on their usual rounds. Organizers are currently in discussions with BEA parent company Reed Exhibitions, among other parties, about sponsoring the show, though they underscore that reports elsewhere of firm plans are premature. Cader says that while mega-events on the scale of Frankfurt will always have their value, smaller, more concentrated forums make economic sense. “We may find that we don’t have to have supershows for certain communities to get good business done,” he adds. “Should we be successful in staging the New York show, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more efforts popping up elsewhere as well.”
Indeed, the rise in international participation has helped boost other fairs too. Christian Booksellers Association President Bill Anderson tells PT that the group’s international convention in Anaheim last July was a pleasant surprise. “Given that some trade shows have been off as much as 50%, we were extremely pleased with 13,129. We had people from 50 countries and our highest international attendance ever, with 1,039 people from outside the US.” The group’s CBA Expo is on tap for January 29-31 in Indianapolis, and interest is so strong that 30 exhibitors have been placed on a waiting list. Plus, a glance at conventions in the technology sector makes Frankfurt look like hog heaven. “Book conventions have held up very well,” says Courtney Muller, Executive Director at New York Is Book Country and veteran of industry conferences at Penton Media (producers of Internet World) and Reed Exhibitions. “COMDEX is one quarter the size it was two years ago. Internet World is one tenth the size it was two years ago. Book shows are staying steady, which in this climate for the trade show and event industry is great news.”
Some international observers were wont to read a political subtext into the Americans’ cold shoulder. “Surely US chief executives are just following Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft’s lead in ignoring what the rest of the world is thinking,” charges UK agent Toby Eady. “America is out of step and even more so by missing a year.” Everyone knows, Eady says, that English-language business gets sent straight to New York. But with a client list of 60% foreign writers, Eady calls Frankfurt “the one time I feel I do something interesting. We sold Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby in 30 languages, Xinran in 21 so far, and Jung Chang in 31. Frankfurt is a circle of publishers who buy one another’s taste, as the London Book Fair is becoming,” Eady adds. “And so twice a year we sell.”