Frankfurt Book Fair 2015: Chocolate, Connections, and a Little Controversy

Photo of Hall 6.0 of the Frankfurt Book Fair
Hall 6.0 of the Frankfurt Book Fair (or Frankfurt Buchmesse) from above.

“It’s massive.” “It’s where everything happens.” “It is the largest book fair in the world.” “There’s a shuttle that gets you from hall to hall.” “It is really big.”  The four NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students volunteering at the Frankfurt Book Fair heard plenty of such descriptions in the days leading up to our  trip. When Namrata Das, Mary Moates, Marinda Valenti and I stepped into the Fair’s main hall last week, we totally concurred: the Frankfurter Buchmesse, as the locals know it, is truly gigantic. Over 275,000 visitors were counted; 9,300 journalists reported from the event, which took place in the Messe, a fairgrounds so large it has its own train and subway stations. Making our way through the airport-like moving walkways that connected the halls, we greeted the largest book fair in the world with awe.

We met Thomas Minkus, VP of Emerging Media & English Language Markets for the Frankfurt Book Fair, and Mareike Miller, his wonderful assistant, upon arriving in Frankfurt. Mareike gave us our schedules, welcome packages, and a pound of Ritter Sport chocolate.

That night, we had dinner with the staff of Publishing Perspectives—an online trade journal for the international publishing industry, or, as they call themselves, “the BBC of the book world.” Among other things, they told us that despite the growing presence of technology in the way people do business today, the importance of face-to-face negotiations is crucial to the book world. No platform has yet replaced the meetings that take place every year in Frankfurt.

Volunteers  (l to r)Mary Moates, Daniela Dib Arguelles,  Marinda Valenti, and Namrata Das  discovered why Frankfurt is "the place to be.
Volunteers  (l to r)Mary Moates, Daniela Dib Arguelles,  Marinda Valenti, and Namrata Das  discovered why Frankfurt is “the place to be.

At the Fair itself, each of us was assigned to different, rotating duties. Namrata helped out with the preparation for the Rights Directors Meeting, one of the Fair’s highlights, where publishers discussed the challenges they face when trying to license books in international markets and the impact the digital era has had on licensing rights. Marinda and Mary worked with the Publishing Perspectives team; in fact, the publication’s staff was quite busy during the Fair, interviewing key participants, writing articles that summed up each day’s highlights, and printing and distributing Publishing Perspectives throughout the halls to keep attendees up to speed on the buzz at the Buchmesse. We all got a chance to organize meetings and manage the reception desks at the Authors Lounge, a space where authors could relax between sessions, and in the Business Club, a networking hub with special events for its exclusive members.

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The Hachette US/UK booth was one of the largest in Hall 6.

During lunch breaks and in our spare time, we were able to explore the halls of the Fair. We agreed upon two main things: first, that the exhibition booths for big and small publishers alike are major assets for each company; and second, that five o’clock is networking time when a number of publishers have drinks and snacks at their stands. Some of the stands for the largest publishing houses were incredibly elaborate. Transporting, assembling, and taking care of the physical aspects of each booth definitely takes a lot of planning and resources. Fortunately for us, one of our biggest worries at the Fair was making it to the Ireland stand’s reception in Hall 4.0 and the Gallimard get-together in Hall 5.2, which were taking place at the same time!

What we had heard about Frankfurt being “the place where everything happens” in the publishing world also turned out to be true. The biggest conversation of the Fair may have been about the turmoil content can generate in today’s intricate political world. The Iranian Ministry of Culture boycotted the Fair when they learned that author Salman Rushdie was speaking at the opening ceremony, leaving an empty row of stands in Hall 4.0 as a powerful reminder of the intersection of publishing and politics. (Muslims remain angered by Rushdie’ 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.)

A similar reminder of the ever-present importance of author’s voices in politics was an event called “Frankfurt Undercover;” authors gathered at the Author’s Lounge for two days to discuss religious extremism and then shared their conclusions in a press conference.

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Daniela, Namrata, Mary, and Marinda sightsee in Frankfurt.

Marinda, Mary, Namrata, and I may have overdone the German bread and chocolate during the seven days we spent in Frankfurt, but we couldn’t get enough of everything the Fair taught us about the publishing world. It is, to note the Fair’s own motto, “the place to be”, not only because it is where major book deals are signed, new talents are discovered, and trends are defined, but also because it is the place where all of this started. Five hundred years ago, Frankfurt was the first city ever to hold a book fair after Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press in the nearby city of Mainz. The rest, as they say, is history.

by Daniela Dib Arguelles

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