Book Fairs Emotions Are Running High

A sign with the inscription “Kein Eingang. No entrance” can be seen in the glass lobby of the exhibition centre: the Leipzig Book Fair was cancelled in 2022 for the third time in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A sign with the inscription “Kein Eingang. No entrance” can be seen in the glass lobby of the exhibition centre: the Leipzig Book Fair was cancelled in 2022 for the third time in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild/Sebastian Willnow

The Leipzig Book Fair – after the Frankfurt fair the most important annual convention in the sector – was cancelled at short notice in 2022 because of the pandemic. The discussion that flared up as a result is only the beginning of a fundamental debate on the future of book fairs.
 

By Matthias Bischoff

You can quickly tell with some debates that the energy used to conduct them is in no way a product of the discussion itself, but is actually a dam release of long-building pressure. One such debate emerged in relation to the Leipzig Book Fair – or more accurately speaking in relation to the cancellation of the fair and the conclusions drawn by various parties.

The starting position: enough publishers had expressed an interest in participating back in November 2021, and by January the confirmed acceptances stood at 75 per cent. But after Saxony’s regional government announced the new Covid rules at the end of January 2022, the fair developed a hygiene concept in response and then presented it to exhibitors on 1st February – and following that a high number of participants pulled out. Less than two weeks later came the announcement that the fair would be cancelled. Unfortunately, according to the official reason given by event organisers, “the volatile pandemic situation is leading to staff shortages for many exhibitors”.

“We’re stunned”

The ripples of what followed extended far beyond the event itself. Publishers, journalists, authors and editors all wanted to have their say, the trade journals Börsenblatt and Buchreport systematically researched opinions, the culture supplements throughout Germany took up the argument. The thing is, many people assumed it had been the major publishing groups pulling out almost overnight. Some people got the impression that the big players could easily afford to miss the fair, and even save costs by doing so. Instead, they would find it easy to tap into the media machine with Instagram posts, podcasts and newsletter penetration to reach their target readership. Others want to show that they can’t manage without the fair: the minute its cancellation was announced, the network literaturhaus.net reported that the Preis der Literaturhäuser would be conferred in Leipzig in 2022, and emphasised the importance of the fair: “Books need a forum. The Leipzig Book Fair represents the diversity we wish for.”

In a petition signed by many authors entitled “Open the Book Fair! We want to read!”, the industry giants were attacked directly: “We’re furious, sad, stunned. The Leipzig Book Fair has been forced to cancel by the big West German publishing houses. […] Isn’t literature worth anything? Aren’t we worth anything?”

Shortly after that a similar approach was taken by the initiative #VerlageGegenRechts, which unites around 80 independent publishers – including Wagenbach, Chr. Links, Büchner, Schöffling. Its signatories directed criticism at the publishers who had cancelled in an open letter, voicing some degree of surprise towards a fundamental discussion initiated, along with others, by Thilo Schmid – Sales Director of the Oetinger Group. He questioned the timing of the fair and expressed the desire for more digital formats or “hybrid events”. The alliance turned this fundamental question back on him, with the provocative remark: “Maybe we can do without the publishing groups – or rather their marketing departments – at this festival of cultural encounters, this celebration of diversity and openness, for discussion and exchange about books and education, discovering the world and broadening horizons?”

As a result, diverse fronts and alliances emerged in the space of a few days. One faction sees the book, in simple terms, as a cultural artefact – always as a product that has to be sold using relevant sales tactics to target younger audiences in particular, in which consumers are typically less avid readers. The other side fears the ultimate domination of economic interests, talking about the “Amazonification” of the sector. And like many others, author Julia Franck views this not just as a “cancellation of literature, but also of the East”. The Leipzig Book Fair is a place that fosters communication, a “beacon of enlightenment” that transcends all borders.

Forced to the Edge by the Big Players

This shows that the discussion about cancelling the fair yet again reflects a fundamental problem in the industry: for a number of years the concentration in terms of both producers (Random House, Bonnier, Holtzbrinck) and retailers (especially Amazon, but far behind them also Hugendubel, Thalia) has made the smaller publishers feel marginalised by the sheer market power of the giants – and in the worst-case scenario, forced out completely. This feeling of powerlessness, whether or not it is justified, quickly leads to a fundamental lack of trust and a significant willingness to view the power of the corporations as even greater than it certainly is anyway. Accordingly the supposed powerholders didn’t let the accusation go unchallenged.

Thomas Rathnow, CEO of the publishing group Penguin Random House, stated the main reason for cancelling the fair as responsibility towards employees in view of the pandemic situation. Furthermore he commented on the “Leipzig” aspect as follows: “We’re convinced of the future of the Leipzig Book Fair as a festival of reading, a celebration of literature, a place for socialising […]. For this reason we will continue to support the Leipzig Book Fair actively as an exhibitor and co-organiser.” Representatives of the publishing groups Holtzbrinck and Bonnier issued similar statements. They all indicated that the advertising effect of a fair is significant. After all, they say, the book is showcased to a broad audience for a few days, no publisher would be able to compensate for this concentrated display of information and advertising even with cleverly structured cash-backed promotion on social and other media.

The Discussion Will Continue

Is it even necessary to hold book fairs, or are digital and hybrid formats enough? Although the main event was cancelled, the Leipzig fair organisers put on a special literature festival event in 2021, entitled “Leipzig liest” (Leipzig reads). Most of the readings were streamed online. Is it even necessary to hold book fairs, or are digital and hybrid formats enough? Although the main event was cancelled, the Leipzig fair organisers put on a special literature festival event in 2021, entitled “Leipzig liest” (Leipzig reads). Most of the readings were streamed online. | Photo (detail): © Leipziger Messe GmbH / Tom Schulze After the storm in the sector’s teacup, there’s a degree of calm for the moment. Several readings are scheduled in Leipzig despite the book fair cancellation, prizes are being awarded, plenty of authors are expected. “An incredible number of events are taking place, having been planned and not cancelled,” says Director of Leipzig Literature House Thorsten Ahrend, who will be presenting more than 30 authors alone. And a few of the independents are hosting a pop-up fair during the days from 18thto 20th March, to include the larger mid-market publishers like Hanser, Klett-Cotta, C.H. Beck, Suhrkamp or Aufbau.

But the discussion about the future of book fairs in Leipzig and even Frankfurt will continue. Should money or culture take precedence? What values are represented by the fair – for instance: where does tolerance against right-wing extremist publishers end? That was the main question concerning the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2021. What target audiences does it appeal to, how much presence does it needs, how many online formats? The discussion that flared up so fiercely demonstrated that emotions were running high, and with or without Covid there are sure to be changes over the next few years. However, one thing is certain: the next Leipzig Book Fair is scheduled to take place on 23rd to 26th March 2023.