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Frankfurt Book Fair 2019
A licence to read

Festive opening at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018
Business and glamour: The Frankfurt Book Fair opens. | Photo (detail): © Frankfurter Buchmesse/Marc Jacquemin

Every October, the media and publishing industry gathers in Frankfurt – at the world’s foremost fair for print and digital content, deals are done, networks are established, and of course literature is celebrated to the full. Karin Janker is only too happy to be overwhelmed.

By Karin Janker

You can immerse yourself in books, but a book fair really swallows you up. As soon as you enter the convention centre with its stuffy air, its hum of constant noise and all the faces, bodies and of course books, you are done for. It is only in the evening when the fair has closed for the day and you are on the way back that you gradually start to emerge from this cosmos again. The book fair in Frankfurt is synonymous with overpriced hotel rooms, a glass or perhaps two of ebbelwei (apple wine) – but most of all, with overstimulation of the senses. And that is just as true today as it was in the early days of the fair. 

Always an intoxicating experience

Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung about the first Frankfurt Book Fair after the Second World War in 1949, Ursula von Kardorff talked of being “intoxicated by the books”. The way she describes the scenes in the Church of St. Paul, where around 200 publishers had come together, gives some idea of what the atmosphere back then must have been like: Kardorff enthused about the “silent friends, colourful, simple, intelligent, cheap and expensive. Able to be touched, browsed, felt and smelt, the hours just flew by with all of these activities on offer. Roughly three thousand people thronged each day to this paradise. A sympathetic community of book lovers, book manufacturers and book traders.”

So the book fair was intoxicating even back then when a mere 14,000 visitors attended the event over the six days in all. This year, the organizers are expecting more than 285,000 visitors on the five days of the fair in Frankfurt. And there is also more to discover: whereas publishers presented 8,400 titles at the fair 70 years ago, this year the figure will total around 390,000.  

Besides presenting, representing and promoting new books, the Frankfurt Book Fair has always been about bringing together publishers, authors, agents, book traders, translators and journalists – and this remains the case to this day. Nowadays, foreign exhibitors are in the majority; not only was Frankfurt Book Fair the first international event of this kind, it also serves as a role model for book fairs in other countries.
Visitors in front of the fair tower Visitors in front of the fair tower | © picture alliance/Sven Simon

Business and glamour

Traditionally, the industry meets in Frankfurt to sound out new projects and conclude business deals, but also to make small talk. The fair is only open to the general public on its last two days, Saturday and Sunday. This more business-like character is what distinguishes the fair in Frankfurt from the somewhat smaller Leipzig Book Fair, which takes place each March. However, Frankfurt Book Fair is also increasingly keen to target readers directly. The “Bookfest” and the “Open Books” festival, which take place on the fringes of the fair, are growing and gradually advancing into the centre of Frankfurt. They feature readings and panel discussions – and this year some of the stars of the literary scene: Margaret Atwood, Maja Lunde and Colson Whitehead will all be introducing their new books.

Mountaineer and author Reinhold Messner, Georg Büchner Prize-winner Terézia Mora and many others are also doing just the same. So as always it will be the most difficult, time-consuming yet wonderful challenge to work out in advance which of the 4,000 or so events to attend, without constantly having the feeling that you are missing out on something.

A guest of honour each year

This year, the Crown Princess of Norway will be bringing a particular touch of glamour to Frankfurt: Mette Marit will be arriving in a special train from Berlin, and will bring with her numerous Norwegian authors for the opening on Tuesday. Norway is this year’s guest of honour. The idea of inviting a guest of honour to the book fair is to make the literature of the host country in question better known internationally, and to ensure that more books are translated from the original. This also gives German fair-goers an introduction to previously unknown authors.

And there is still plenty to discover even in Norway – which has already produced three Nobel Laureates in Literature – although Norwegian literature has been popular for some time with German readers. This year, bestselling authors like Jo Nesbø (author of the Harry Hole crime novels), Maja Lunde (“The History of Bees”) and Jostein Gaarder (“Sophie’s World”) will be taking to the stage in Frankfurt. And the opening ceremony will feature an address by Karl Ove Knausgård, who is much celebrated in the feature pages.

Visitors waiting in the Frankfurt Pavillion at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018 Visitors waiting in the Frankfurt Pavillion at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018 | © picture alliance/Sven Simon

Imbibing honey

So there it is again, the feeling of overstimulation. Anyone wishing to escape a little might be tempted to go on the Saturday afternoon to the specially created football field to watch German authors play against Norwegian writers. At least that has something to do with books in only a very peripheral sense.

Those who consider that to be too much action and too little contemplation can focus on that which is at the heart of all the tumult, the “silent friends” about which Ursula von Kardorff wrote. After all, that is what remains once the book fair is over: the inspiration to read a whole load of new books that will keep you going through the winter. The book fair in Frankfurt was and remains “a beehive of books”, says Kardorff, with “deliciously filled honeycomb”. That also explains the constant buzzing that continues to reverberate in your ears for some time after visiting the fair.