The 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair concluded Sunday, October 14, with fair officials reporting a 2.7% gain in the number of exhibitors over 2017’s fair. In all, the fair featured 7,503 exhibitors from 109 countries (up from 102 last year). And though final attendance figures for the trade won’t be out until this week, they are expected to be stable for a fourth-straight year—a sign that the fair has found solid footing again after attendance declines in the recession-challenged years following the 2009 event.
Despite lingering political uncertainty across Europe, the U.K., and in the U.S., a sense of calm has also returned to the fair. “The general feeling has been a mixture of bullish confidence and strange unease,” said Michael Bhaskar, publishing director of U.K.-based Canelo.
Transworld publisher Bill Scott Kerr pointed to another important factor contributing to the mood of the show: the weather. It was uncharacteristically sunny and warm all week, to the delight of fairgoers. “The weather makes a massive difference,” Kerr said. “There are loads of people out enjoying the sun in the courtyard, which can contribute to the feeling that, within the halls, the fair is a bit quieter.”
In his opening keynote at the Markets on October 10, HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne neatly captured the state of the book business. “Clearly, the physical book never did go away, nor was it ever going to,” he said. “But equally important, I’m not seeing any great resurgence across the market in terms of physical books. In fact, I think the truth is that we have arrested decline.”
Redmayne acknowledged that challenges remain, including “a squeeze on space for books in retail channels” and “continued pressure from online platforms.” But in a noticeable change of tone from Frankfurt keynotes of years past, Redmayne sounded confident that the book business can compete in a digital, multimedia world.
“We should not be afraid of people consuming other forms of media,” Redmayne said. “For us, this is a positive. Ultimately it drives people back to the book. And consumers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay for content as long as it is the content they want, at the quality they expect, easily accessible on the platform they want to consume it on, and, just as importantly, at the right price.”
In the LitAg (agents center), rights dealing was steady, although there were no blockbuster deals or hot titles rippling through the fair. “The agents center is very busy,” Trident’s Robert Gottlieb reported. “Foreign publishers are here in large numbers and buying American authors. Literary and upmarket in fiction is hot, and women’s fiction in general is highly sought after.”
Another American agent, Rebecca Gardner of the Gernert Company, had a slightly different take. She termed the mood at the LitAg “mellow” and observed that though it is encouraging to hear about novels from a range of diverse voices, the more frequent comment in the center “was about how little there was on the fiction front.”
“We have had a very busy fair for children’s fiction, with a lot of interest,” said Jane Harris, manager of children’s trade at Bonnier. “There is money in the market for the right things. But the fair in general seems a bit quieter, and there are not many Americans.”
Johanna Ingalls, managing editor of Akashic Books, agreed. “There seem to be less people around, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s less frantic. It’s quieter, which is somehow more welcoming.”
Which is not to say there wasn’t drama in the LitAg—specifically over the fair’s plan to move the center next year from Hall 6.0 to the nearby Festhalle to accommodate renovations. The LitAg has moved several times in the past decade to accommodate growth; this year, it had 538 tables, up from some 500 in 2017. But the pending move has nevertheless generated significant pushback from agents and publishers, including a petition circulating in the LitAg asking the fair to reconsider the decision to move.
Once again, politics loomed large at the fair. At the annual CEO panel, Macmillan CEO John Sargent recalled his run-in with the Trump administration, which sought to block publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Sargent said the decision to fight the Trump administration’s cease-and-desist order wasn’t about politics so much as right vs. wrong. “The function that we serve is not only a commercial function, but also a function to help democracy,” he added. The threat by the Trump administration to stop publication of the book, he noted, “was unacceptable to us, and it should be unacceptable to everyone in America, no matter which way they vote.”
At the fair’s opening press conference, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke of the need for more diverse voices in literature, and for more “boldness” in storytelling in these uncertain political times. “Art can illuminate politics,” she told a standing-room-only audience of journalists in the new Frankfurt Pavilion. “It is important to have a wide diversity of voices not because we want to be politically correct, but because we want to be accurate. We cannot understand the world if we continue to pretend that a small fraction of the world is representative of the whole world.”
Adichie also spoke of the need for more women’s voices to he heard. “For so many people in the world today, there’s an inability to feel empathy for women, because the stories of women are not yet seen as universal,” she said. “This to me is why we seem to live in a world where many people believe that large numbers of women can simply wake up one day and make up stories about having been assaulted. I know many women who want to be famous. I don’t know one single woman who wants to be famous for having been assaulted. To believe this is to think very lowly of women.”