Books & Art

The World's Oldest and Largest Book Paradise

In preparation for this year's Frankfurt Book Fair (11 to 15 October 2017), Karina Bolasco interviews its CEO, Juergen Boos.
IMAGE Frankfurt Book Fair/ Peter Hirth
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If your knees weaken when you are in a bookstore, not knowing which section to turn to, and which book to first open, you will go crazy at the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF), the world's oldest and largest book fair, where there are halls and halls of all kinds of books in the world, including a hall just for comic books and graphic novels.

Known in German as the Frankfurter Buchmesse, the FBF is the international publishing industry’s biggest trade fair, with over 7,150 exhibitors from more than 100 countries, around 278,000 visitors, and over 4,000 events. It also gathers key players from other media, including the film and gaming industries. Since 1976, the FBF has featured an annual Guest of Honor country, which showcases its book market, literature and culture to FBF guests in a variety of ways. 

You will want to wish hard that the FBF did not go away after five days, that it be as permanent as a museum. To stand in the middle of just one hall is to literally inhale the fresh air of ideas, big and small, and of experience, grand and wise.  

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With France as this year's Guest of Honor, there will be refreshing, exciting and intellectually—stimulating activities in the French Pavilion to look forward to. Again, this October, for the second time, the Philippines will have its own collective 50-square-meter stand (sponsored by Senator Loren Legarda's international exhibitions program that also funds the Venice Biennale). Some ten or so publishers will go again, but many more publishers will be able to send their books for the world to see. Hopefully, as ASEAN celebrates its 50th year, there could be a venue for events organized by the original five-member countries like the launch of a book called The First Five: An Anthology of Short Stories and Poetry, that collects their best recent short fiction and poetry. There will also be writer and illustrator panels to discuss best practice and new trends in the region.

Juergen Boos, CEO of the FBF, was in Manila las February with Claudia Kaiser, Head of International Market Development. We asked him a few questions about the continuing role of the world's largest book paradise in this modern age.

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FBF is the world’s oldest and largest book fair. In light of its history and the role it has played since it was founded, can you tell us what its priorities have been over the years and how, on the whole, it has contributed to improving the quality of human life?

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Going back in history, the first book fair took place shortly after Gutenberg invented the movable type in the 15th century. It brought together a wide variety of people and was meant to encourage free trade. While a lot has changed since then, of course, the main purpose of the fair is still to serve as a forum for trade and innovation, dialogue and exchange. Books tell great stories, enriching our lives by stimulating our imaginations and transmitting knowledge. And while technological innovations may have changed our reading habits and the media through which stories can be told, FBF continues to be a place for all of these stories to come together. It is a forum then, a convergence for all countries and cultures through books. 

When did FBF start hosting a Guest of Honor? How did that come about and what has been the overall effect of the program?

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It all started in 1976, when Latin America participated as the first Guest of Honor at the FBF. Originally, the idea was to feature a special theme every two years, but this concept then turned into our annual Guest of Honor program. Since 1988, the Book Fair has welcomed a country or region as its Guest of Honor every year. This has put the spotlight on the literature and culture of many very diverse regions, bringing them to wider attention on a global scale. From an economic point of view, the program has allowed the guest countries to establish stronger international networks within the publishing industry and with cultural institutions, and as well worth noting, has resulted in a significant increase in the number of literary translations from these countries’ respective languages. Literary translations are the most efficient and attractive cultural exchanges. 

In 2015, Indonesia was Guest of Honor—the first time ever that a Southeast Asian country was featured in the FBF. How did its participation compare?

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Indonesia’s Guest of Honor presentation was developed by a very dedicated team. They put a great deal of effort into encouraging the expansion of the Indonesian publishing industry and into increasing the number of translations coming out of the country. This focus on activities with lasting effects paid off, in terms of visibility and the number of rights being sold, both of which have grown significantly. Also, a year later, in 2016, we were delighted to welcome a much larger number of Indonesian publishers in Frankfurt than before the country’s participation as Guest of Honor. As you can imagine, from the point of view of our visitors, it was a terrific highlight that Indonesia presented not only its literature but also its culture at the fair—with music, dance, theater performances and Southeast Asian food—the public loved it! 

There is a globally accepted rule in business that also holds true for books: whoever executes the most efficient publicity strategies wins the market. In the FBF, has there been any attempt to level the playing field? 

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At the FBF,  we’ve established several schemes to support small players in the industry. Our invitation program gives 20 selected small and independent publishers a chance to participate in the fair with a free stand. Moreover, in cooperation with cultural institutions, we organize various events abroad, including training courses and summer schools for publishers. Also, our international offices offer programs and events, including workshops and trips for editors, to further enhance knowledge-sharing with other publishers within their respective regions and developing  an international network. Finally, by hosting smaller countries such as Iceland and Georgia as Guests of Honor at the FBF, we want to give smaller publishing industries the opportunity to further strengthen their international ties.

 It is a forum, then, a convergence for all countries and cultures through books. 

Does FBF monitor data on book production and book publishing worldwide?

Needless to say, it’s essential for us to stay up-to-date on current trends and developments in the publishing industry. As a result, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, of which the FBF or Frankfurter Buchmesse, is a subsidiary, has its own market research department. Moreover, the online business magazine Publishing Perspectives, a project of the Frankfurt Book Fair New York Inc., covers trends, people, and companies shaping the global book industry. 

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The rise of populist leaders across the world represents a grave risk to liberalism. Will this year’s FBF include a theme or event to address this extremely pressing concern? A panel discussion with famous writers, for example? 

The “Weltempfang” in Hall 3.1 is the Book Fair’s political and cultural forum. It is organized by Litprom, a non-profit, non-commercial literary agency which aims to actively promote literature from African, Asian and Latin American countries in the German-speaking region. On the Weltempfang stage, prominent speakers address and discuss current political issues and concerns. Last year, for instance, renowned writers including Boualem Sansal, Elif Shafak and Timothy Garton Ash participated in discussions around the theme of “Europe.” So keep an eye out for this year’s Weltempfang program.


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What new things/events are lined up for the 2017 FBF?

Every year, the Book Fair is different and thus “new” in a sense. Of course, the Guest of Honor— France, this year—gives each fair a unique twist. Since the fair is also a place where new technology is presented, I’m very excited to see what innovations will be in the spotlight in October. Last year we launched THE ARTS+, a new marketplace for the creative and cultural industries, an area we are planning to further expand in 2017. 

What programs does FBF offer for writers? Does the fair have some way of consolidating the creative output—rich discussions as well as new books – and goodwill generated at the various writers’ festivals held at different times of the year in different countries? 

I like to think of Frankfurt as a snapshot of the rich spectrum of current literary production. Needless to say, it’s impossible to capture the full range and diversity of literature – and discussions about it – at one single event. However, as the world’s largest book fair, we give participants a chance to exchange ideas, expand their networks, discover new topics and meet new people on an international scale. As a result, I’m convinced that these five days in October create new symbioses and bring new discussions to the fore. For international writers and self-publishers, this year we are planning a special program consisting of a full day of presentations and discussions at the fair—mostly how-to sessions to support aspiring authors and self-publishers in making their dream of publishing their own book come true.

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About The Author
Maria Karina A. Bolasco
Karina Bolasco is the director of the Ateneo University Press, and is the Philippines Analyst for the Frankfurt Book Fair.
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