book fairs

‘Freedom to publish is the backbone of our industry’: Juergen Boos, CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair

An interview with the President and CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair, who believes robotics and cryptocurrencies will influence publishing in the coming years.

The Frankfurter Buchmesse, or the Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest trade fair in the publishing world. With over 7,300 exhibitors from 102 countries, around 286,000 visitors and over 4,000 events, it’s where deals are struck, book rights sold and license fees negotiated. This year, the fair will take place from October 10 to October 14 and, as always, will feature a Guest of honour – a country or region that gets a special focus at the fair.

Juergen Boos, the CEO and President of the Frankfurt Book Fair since 2005, spoke to about what to expect at this year’s fair and how smaller publishing houses can get noticed at such a giant event. Excerpts from the interview:

The Frankfurt Book Fair has undergone innumerable changes over the years, as publishing and the nature of the fair itself have evolved. What has remained unchanged and consistent and what is the biggest change we should expect this year?
Since its beginnings, the basic nature of the fair has remained unchanged. The Frankfurter Buchmesse has always been a place where writers, publishers, agents and readers come together to share and exchange stories. As the largest international book fair, we draw attendees from all around the world and from different industries. We provide them with a platform to increase their business. The Book Fair gives you the opportunity to meet new potential business partners and to schedule meetings with partners from all over the world within a single week. At our Literary Agents Centre, for example, agents have roughly 15 to 20 meetings per day.

As a major cultural event, we celebrate literature and authors, putting them in the spotlight. Last year, for example, writers such as Dan Brown, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Leïla Slimani all came to Frankfurt to meet their fans. This year, we want to give good stories an even a bigger stage – both at the fair and in the city of Frankfurt. To do so, we are planning to create a new space for spectacular literary and networking events right at the heart of the fair. In addition, we also plan to expand the “BOOKFEST” – our programme in Frankfurt’s city centre, which premiered last year and provides the perfect platform to showcase literary content interactively. Currently, we are still in the planning stages and have only just started talking to promising partners. So, while it’s still a bit too early to get into details at this point, I can say that I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results in October.

E-books and Kindle have been around for ten years now. How successful do you think this format has been as a medium? What formats, particularly digital ones, should we be looking out for and how does the fair incorporate digital formats into its structure and programming?
E-books have often been mischaracterised as something that completely replaces the traditional reading experience, rather than just another book format – like a paperback or audio book. Yet, what we see is that e-books and digital publishing have provided a way for readers to have greater access to the written word. In that respect, I think the format has been incredibly successful. I would say that e-books and digital publishing have now been fully integrated into the larger conversation.

In addition to augmented and virtual reality, I see artificial intelligence, robotics and cryptocurrencies in particular as some of the key innovations that will influence the publishing industry in the coming years. These new technologies can be found everywhere at the fair, but “THE ARTS+” business festival especially focuses on these new technologies. Last year, “THE ARTS+” featured a robot and virtual reality experiences you could immerse yourself in. With “THE ARTS+” programme at the fair, our goal is to deepen the conversation about what opportunities these technologies offer and to point out new business models that can arise from them.

Apart from the guest of honour, how are you able to ensure that the fair isn’t dominated by Anglophone European and American players?
I’m proud to say that the Frankfurter Buchmesse is a truly international fair. Every year, exhibitors and trade visitors from more than 130 countries come to Frankfurt. One of the ways in which we ensure diversity amongst our exhibitors and attendees is through our Invitation Programme. This funding programme, which we organise together with the German Federal Foreign Office, allows small, independent publishing companies from Africa, the Arab world, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean to become exhibitors at the Book Fair. It has made it possible for publishers to be present in Frankfurt and to use the fair to build new relationships and to grow their businesses.

In addition, our conference “THE MARKETS”, which takes place on the Tuesday before the Book Fair, also shines a light on the publishing industries of a wide range of different countries. In the past, we have focused on the publishing industries of India, the Philippines, China and Japan, amongst many other countries. This further showcases these countries and their literary scenes.

Moreover, with programmes such as that featured at our Weltempfang stage, we discuss cultural and political issues from around the world in Frankfurt. One of the established programme highlights here is the award ceremony for the Liberaturpreis, which honours works by female writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arab world.

Also, in cooperation with our four foreign offices in New Delhi, New York, Moscow and Beijing, we organise events and workshops all year round to strengthen the international publishing network. For instance, with StoryDrive Asia, an event we launched several years ago, we have developed strong relationships in Asia.

In the past, you’ve spoken about the freedom to publish. How crucial do you consider that right now, particularly in different parts of the world?
In our industry, the freedom to publish is in our DNA. It is the backbone of publishing. One of the greatest missions we have at the Frankfurter Buchmesse is to protect freedom of expression and the freedom to publish. Just recently, I was part of a panel on self-censorship at the International Publishers Congress in New Delhi. What touches me and simultaneously motivates me to speak out against censorship is hearing from writers and publishers about the challenges and risks they face when publishing their work – there are many people who literally risk their lives to publish a book.

At the Frankfurter Buchmesse, we keep a close eye on developments around the world that threaten freedom of expression and the freedom to publish. We work with writers and publishers to help keep the lines of communication open. One way in which we support them is through our programming at the fair. With some 10,000 journalists and bloggers in attendance, for five days in October the Frankfurter Buchmesse is the focus of the media. With the Weltempfang programme, for instance, we offer writers and publishers a stage to publicly share their experiences and address challenges. In this way, we help draw attention to their situations.

Internationally, how much interest are you seeing in writing coming out of India?
Indian writing in English has been gaining an international readership. Here in Europe, Indian writers have been acknowledged and earned great acclaim. Novels by authors such as Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai and Rohinton Mistry have a wide readership – not only in Germany. From what I can see, in recent years there has been especially an increasing interest in literature around issues of cultural diversity and multifaceted identities. As a result, we can also see Indian-language books travelling, as the recent success of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar shows for instance. The translation of Shanbhag’s novel into English can be interpreted as a sign of the times to come. These developments have also induced changes in terms of business. Traditionally, Indian publishing houses have been licence-buyers; however, growing interest in literature from India has resulted in more and more Indian publishers also selling rights.

What can smaller participants like indie literary agencies or publishers looking to sell rights do to ensure that their titles get attention at such an enormous fair, where larger players tend to capture the spotlight?
A diverse range of exhibitors and trade visitors attend our fair. To put your titles in the spotlight, I recommend a well-prepared and creative presentation – whether your publications are presented on your own stand or as part of a book collection – paired with a good communications strategy. It is also important to provide materials such as data, background information and press reviews in order to help your titles appeal to potential buyers. Since schedules fill up quickly at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, we advise approaching business partners early on, even several months before the fair. Actively engaging in business and networking activities in Frankfurt makes it easier to make new business contacts. For example, our conferences such as the Frankfurt Rights Meeting and “THE MARKETS” offer the opportunity to learn about different publishing markets and new business possibilities, as well as to get to know potential clients or partners. Of course, every Book Fair attendee has his or her own individual goals. That’s why we offer personalised advice for exhibitors. My colleagues at the German Book Office in New Delhi, for example, can help find the best way to present your company and products at the fair.

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