The Frankfurt Book Fair Celebrates Sixty Years

An interview with director Juergen Boos

It started as a modest show in Frankfurt’s St Paul’s Church. Sixty years on it is the largest book fair in the world, without which no publisher’s diary would be complete. Every publishing professional has his or her share of ‘Frankfurt stories’, of reckless deals, of ‘buzz books’, of late-night parties, even of meeting one’s future wife or husband. But this year’s anniversary provides welcome pause for thought and reflection on an event that rose, like everything else at that time, from the rubble of post-war Germany. It was a Germany of sectors (Frankfurt in the American one), a Germany in which books were not necessarily a top priority. Yet, as the inevitability of a divided state grew, it was a time of immense creativity and gritty determination to rebuild an industry so closely linked to earlier, happier days.
In 1949 some 200 German publishers presented around 10,000 titles to 14, 000 visitors – a hugely encouraging response, and proof, borne out the following year, that a sturdy sapling had been planted and taken root. An interesting element in the early mix was the significant role played by the book trade’s emigrants, who, returning from their adopted countries, and bringing with them their own experience and connections, were vital to the Fair’s burgeoning international life. This international element remains one of the Fair’s attractions today, be it through the guest country annually featured or the experience of a typical Frankfurt dinner, at which a table for eight may see eight different nationalities represented.
Every decade in the history of the book fair has its own milestones, each reflecting the aims and ideas of the individual director and the role of politics at the time. In 1959, for example, two novels caused a particular stir on account of their treatment of the problem of coming to terms with the past: Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-Past Ten and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. The 1960s brought debate and some discord: there were grumblings that economic concerns were engulfing Frankfurt’s cultural and social relevance. Home affairs made their presence felt, too, culminating in the so-called ‘Police Fair’ of 1968 as protests turned to riots. As the decade drew to a close the Fair had unequivocally stated its position, striving to provide a platform for political as well as cultural debate and stressing its commitment to free speech.
A sense of political responsibility, educational initiatives, and the forging of deeper international links characterised the 1970s and developed vibrantly under the guiding hand of fair director Peter Weidhaas, who held the post for twenty-five years from 1975. In the 1980s came the arrival of the newly liberated countries of the Eastern bloc. Commitment to a two-way international relationship was cemented by the establishing of German Book Offices in Moscow, Bucharest and Warsaw, to be followed by those in Beijing, New York, and most recently, Delhi.
The 1993 Fair slogan ‘Frankfurt Goes Electronic’, the creation of the Comic Centre in 2000, the Forum for TV and Film in 2003 and the Nonbook Collective Stand three years after this show a fair in motion, tapping in to the latest developments and trends, reflecting leaps in technology and shifts in the traditional book market.
Sixty years of the Book Fair reflect sixty vivid years in the book industry. We look back with interest and respect, and forward with anticipation. Meanwhile it is our pleasure to give the ‘floor’ to Juergen Boos, director since 2005, and we thank him for this interview.
Mr. Boos, you are the sixth Director of the Book Fair since it started after the war. What are the particular qualities you believe a director must bring to the job, and how different is your brief now compared to that, say, of Peter Weidhaas?
I don’t think there is a magic recipe for what makes a good Book Fair Director. For me personally it is important to be acutely aware of changes on all book trade fronts, to react and delve into them. The book fair provides the structure for successful communication, but must constantly be ready to adapt the channels of that communication, redirect them, create new catchment areas, or spread into others as required. It is a mammoth task that relies absolutely on teamwork. So a fascination for communication is an essential and specific part of it. And a fascination for the book-trade, that goes without saying. All these are things any book fair director has to bring to the table and Peter Weidhaas’s example in this respect was outstanding. One element that is perhaps different today is the sheer dimension and pace of change.
Recently, there has been an even further reaching out internationally through the Frankfurt Book Fair’s involvement with the Cape Town and Abu Dhabi fairs. Is that it, or do you envisage similar initiatives elsewhere in the world?
Our involvement with South Africa and Abu Dhabi has been an exceptionally positive experience. Together with the South African publishers’ association, PASA, we founded the Cape Town Book Fair, now in its third year. Meanwhile this book fair has become a real meeting point for the Black African and international book trades. Last year, in conjunction with ADACH, the cultural authorities of Abu Dhabi, the Frankfurt Book Fair embarked on the joint venture Kitab in the United Arab Emirates. The aim of Kitab is to strengthen the book market in the Arab world and to further promote reading in Abu Dhabi and its neighbouring Emirates. Emphasis is also placed on the professionalisation of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The year 2008 saw a further step: 482 exhibitors from forty-two countries took part, around 160 of them international exhibitors not from the Arab world. These figures show that Abu Dhabi is becoming increasingly significant, not only for the Arab book industry but also worldwide. One reason for our involvement in these markets is that fifty-five per cent of exhibitors in Frankfurt are international – we need to know what makes these exhibitors tick, what drives them, their needs. That is why international experience, but also international networking, is vital for us. We are correspondingly open to other international ventures although there is nothing concrete in the pipeline.
Could you tell us a little more about the Literacy Campaign you began in 2006 – why did you feel this was important, what are its driving force and its current aims?
According to official statistics, there are still hundreds of millions of people around the world who can neither read nor write – among them roughly four million so-called ‘functional illiterates’ in Germany. It’s important to keep reminding ourselves of this fact and to strive for change. That is why we chose ‘Education for the Future’ as a key focus at the Fair in 2006. The Frankfurt Book Fair Literacy Campaign, or LitCam, is one strand of this. It aims not only to raise awareness in the worldwide problem of illiteracy, but also to create new networks and provide an arena for the further exchange of ideas and strategies. The Frankfurt Book Fair provides an international platform for debate on content and cultural policy. Furthermore, we are the global meeting place for the international book business. For the book industry, the issue of education is of fundamental significance from an economic point of view. Its business activity is, after all, based on the fact that readers are out there, that the industry’s products can be used and are in demand. The more seriously we take education, the greater the opportunities for growth. Therefore Frankfurt is predestined to apply itself intensively to education as an issue for the future.
You’ve continued and intensified the tradition of an annual focus on a particular country. How difficult is the selection process – do the countries come to you, or do you go to them? Does this annual showcase have a real commercial impact?
Selecting the Guest of Honour countries is a long and tricky process. In the majority of cases the initiative comes from the publishers’ associations of the individual countries. It then takes around two years before a final decision is reached and many factors play a role. It’s important to know that the ‘Guest of Honour’ principle stems from the 1970s. At that time publishers were discovering the possibilities offered by targeted marketing and invested undreamed-of sums of money for that purpose. The accusations of commercialisation were countered by the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1976 with the introduction of bi-annual focal themes, such as ‘Latin America’ in 1976 and ‘Child and Book’ in 1978. The aim was to put the spotlight on subject areas that lack a business lobby, but also to bolster the trade in rights. And that is still true today. Latin American literature owed its international boom in part to its appearance in Frankfurt. In the case of this year’s guest, Turkey, the list of new translated works from the Turkish being published has risen to around 300. Nowadays focal themes of this nature are a part of almost all important book fairs in the world.
Is the Frankfurt Book Fair, having grown by leaps and bounds, as big now as it can get? Comic Hall, TV-Film Forum, Press Centre…is there room for it to expand further, and if so in which direction?
There is always room to grow. And naturally we are always considering how we can further expand what’s on offer to publishers. How can we reinvent ourselves, how can we adapt to the needs of the trade? I think the opening of our Film & TV Forum in 2003 is a good example of this. Content is in fact the central focus of the fair and how this content can be used by all kinds of media, whether film or comics, games or others, is paramount. In this respect I regard the digitalisation of media as a very positive development, one that increases the possibilities of the multiple use of content as well as encouraging the creation of new content for new types of media.
What is the greatest threat to the book industry today?
The greatest threat is a loss of creativity and of readiness to take a risk, and a dwindling number of people with something to say and the will to say it. But this threat is as old as the printing press itself.
What are the particular challenges in 2008 for the FBM and what do you envisage being the greatest challenges in the decade to come?
The greatest challenge this year is to provide an immaculately organised fair for all the exhibitors and visitors. This is an annual challenge as the industry and its needs are in constant motion. We are working flat out on it.
And may we ask about your own reading tastes? Which books are you reading or do you have on your bedside table just now?
I like Annie Proulx, but also Lewis Trondheim’s comics. Recently I was most impressed by Karen Duve’s novel Taxi. At the moment I am also reading a lot of Turkish literature, not least in preparation for Turkey’s appearance as Guest of Honour. I’m realising how little I had come across from that country. And that’s spurring me on, of course.
And if you were to sit back after a busy day in the Frankfurt office or after one of your many business trips abroad, what is the music you would choose to unwind to?
I like anything that is a shade unusual and electronic music best of all. The list is long, from David Sylvian to New Order and Stockhausen, but I also like Jackson Brown and Van Morrison.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Follow your instinct.
What advice would you give a young professional with aspirations to becoming the FBM director one day?
I would say to him or her, never admit to anyone your heart is set on their job.
How do you plan to relax after this year’s book fair?
I’ll read a good book.
Juergen Boos
Having trained as a bookseller, Juergen Boos took a degree in business management in Mannheim. He worked for several years as sales director of the Droemer publishing group, Carl Hanser Verlag and the Springer Verlag in Berlin. In 1997 he became the marketing, sales and distribution director of the Wiley-VCH publishing group in Weinheim. Since 2005 he has been director of the Frankfurt Book Fair.