Pageantry and Politics at Publishing's Big Event: The 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair

Article excerpt

Publishers, prizes, press conferences. Pageantry, politics, posturing. Frankfurt simply has it all. For five days every fall, this metropolis on Germany's Main River is the center of the book world. This year, 6,691 publishers from all over the globe paid top dollar to have their own booths October 6-10, while 79 countries had collective exhibits; in all, 110 countries were represented. The fair's press office estimates that 350,000 books were on display, no fewer than 100,000 of them new releases.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is so vast that it has its own train station, subway station, post office, barbershop, and six gourmet restaurants. Shuttle buses and an airport-style "via mobile" ferry 270,000 visitors back and forth between 10 huge exhibit halls, each two, three, or four stories high. Fred Bohm, director of the Michigan State University Press, calls it "the greatest show on earth." Bohm--who has come to Frankfurt every year since 1997 to meet with publishing partners from Africa, Singapore, and even neighboring Canada--said, "We are told that publishing and books are under siege. Yet to come here and see what publishing really represents in the world, it's inspiring and remarkable."

No freebies in Frankfurt

Okay, Frankfurt is huge; but what's in it for librarians, and specifically for American librarians? It's not really the destination for a buying trip: Contrary to what one might think, books are not sold at the fair, and they are most certainly not given away. Librarians who come to Frankfurt don't leave the fair with shopping carts full of literary gems and esoteric oddities. In Frankfurt, it's mainly the publishers who come to see and be seen, to show off their star authors, and to buy and sell rights. About one-third of these are German publishers, who alongside the British, dominate the international rights market. Germany's Suhrkamp Verlag, for example, signs over 400 rights deals each year, most of them initiated, sealed, or just celebrated at Frankfurt.

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So again: What's in it for librarians? To get some answers, I spoke with colleagues who made the journey across the Atlantic to this Mecca of the international book trade. Two of these were Bill Miller, director of libraries at Florida Atlantic University, and Julia Gelfand, applied sciences librarian at the University of California at Irvine, who were in Frankfurt this year on an official mission: to staff the booth of ALA's Association of College and Research Libraries in the International Librarians Center, this year occupying prime real estate in Hall 4. For Miller, just walking through the halls at the Frankfurt fair "enhances awareness of publishing outside the U.S." But he also points out that the physical presence of American librarians in Frankfurt meets an important outreach need: Colleagues from around the world stop by with questions, get help with contacts, or just pick up literature. …