What is the history of the most important European book fairs? What are the current trends? Is it worth taking part in them? And what would Goethe make of it all?
The author has been attending book fairs regularly since 2004 as an employee of the National Library’s Department of Foreign Documents. International fairs are important for librarians as they present them with the opportunity to negotiate with publishers and suppliers, make purchases or arrange specific orders and discounts from international publishers, and establish new contacts: for example, with foundations which might support libraries.1Thanks to these contacts, the National Library has repeatedly received generous donations, for example, from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the central German organization for supporting research at universities and publicly financed research institutes (https://text.nkp.cz/o-knihovne/odborne-cinnosti/doplnovani-fondu/novinky-z-akvizice/dar-dfg2009; https://text.nkp.cz/o-knihovne/odborne-cinnosti/doplnovani-fondu/novinky-z-akvizice/dar-nem). It was also thanks to book-fair initiatives that the complete transfer of the extensive Tschechische Bibliothek edition to the National Library’s collections was negotiated (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tschechische_Bibliothek). As well as visiting Book World Prague, Leipzig and Frankfurt on an annual basis, he has been to London fairly regularly and to Vienna a number of times. However, he has also attended fairs further afield: for example, in Vilnius, Thessaloniki, Istanbul, and Delhi. He has written articles on all of them for the internet magazine iLiteratura.cz, and they have also been published in Lidové noviny, iDnes.cz, Hospodářské noviny, Literární noviny and Respekt.
From Frankfurt and Leipzig all the way to Jaipur
The oldest book fairs originally developed as part of local markets – in Frankfurt, for example, manuscripts were being exchanged and sold as far back as the 11th century.2Šteflová, Jitka: Významné evropské knižní veletrhy a jejich role při akvizici v knihovnách. (Important European book fairs and their role in library acquisitions) Bachelor thesis, Masaryk University 2009. However, they gradually separated off and from the early modern period were already being organized “independently, due in large part to the invention of the printing press.” Over the centuries the Frankfurt and Leipzig book fairs vied for the title of most important German book fair. In comparison with the international prestige of Frankfurt, the Leipzig book fair was initially regional in scope, mainly covering central and northern Germany. However, this changed in the 18th century, when various political and cultural developments led to Leipzig assuming the role of the most important centre of book fairs. Another turning point came after the Second World War with the division of Germany, when Leipzig found itself in the eastern part, which handed the advantage to Frankfurt in the west. The first Frankfurt Book Fair was held from 8 to 25 September 1949 in cooperation with several German publishers. The choice of year was significant, marking as it did 200 years since the birth of Frankfurt-born Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Of course, Frankfurt also had to compete with the book fairs in Stuttgart and Hamburg, though Frankfurt’s position was strengthened by the fact that it had the support of the German Book Traders’ Association. It soon achieved international recognition and in 1953 the number of international publishers (505 from 11 countries) outstripped those from Germany (484). However, it has also been linked to controversy: in 1967 there were student protests against the media power of the Springer publishing house at the exhibition grounds, and in 1969 it was boycotted by small publishing firms due to perceived over-commercialization.
After the reunification of Germany, Frankfurt even helped to “restore the glory of its Leipzig competitor.”3Woll, Thomas. Rukověť nakladatele: řemeslo, věda, umění. (A Publisher’s Handbook: Craft, Science, Art) Translation Petr Macháček and Jan Dvořák. Prague: Signeta, 2002, p. 131. One indication that both of these cities are crucial to German literary life is the fact that the German National Library officially has two headquarters – one in Frankfurt and the other in Leipzig. Today the book fair in Frankfurt is not only the largest and most important one in Germany but in the whole world. It is held each year, traditionally in October, and lasts for five days. The first three days are for exhibitors and the press, and this is the time when deals are made and licences and copyrights are negotiated, while the final two days are open to the public.
Conventional wisdom has it that Frankfurt focuses on publishers while Leipzig is designed more for booksellers and readers. However, if you visit the Frankfurt book fair at the weekend and compare it with the Leipzig book fair, you might not actually notice many differences (apart from the size). During this time both book fairs are inundated with characters from various fantasy worlds, including elves, Pokemon, Darth Vadars, Supermen, Bat-Men and many others who show up as “teenagers” in masks and disguises, with the result that the uninitiated visitor might feel as if they are in the middle of a gigantic carnival.
As was observed by the former director of the Book World company, Dana Kalinová, even a book fair with such global significance as Frankfurt is gradually changing, searching for its identity and opening itself even wider to the German reading public.4Kalinová, Dana. Kniha jako předmět obchodu: rozhovor s ředitelkou knižního veletrhu Svět knihy Praha Danou Kalinovou o knižním trhu u nás i ve světě. (The Book as an Object of Trade: An interview with the director of the Book World Prague book fair, Dana Kaliná, about the Czech and international book trade) Host, 2015, 31(3), p. 40. Since 2019 it has been selling more books to individual visitors than ever before. Publications are increasingly being offered along with audio-visual and interactive extensions (or even replacements), which demonstrates the desire for direct personal involvement and unique, powerful physical experiences. As a result, there is the chance to try out increasingly abundant forms of virtual reality. This could be a “visit” to a relatively stable imaginary world in which a flickering fire provides the backdrop for listening to a story being told, or it could be movement within a highly dynamic space, where walls made of letters hurtle past the person or they walk across a footbridge above a hundred-metre abyss. At the same time, this is an exploration of how the other senses can be employed to enhance the experience of reading or listening to a book, and how these methods might be used, for example, for educational purposes: as an introduction to the sophisticated worlds of philosophy or psychology, or a virtual visit to a museum or gallery. In Frankfurt literature is also being incorporated into events reminiscent of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, e.g. when the famous German actors Timmo Niesner and Manuel Straube, who lent their voices to the hobbits Frodo and Bilbo in the film version of Lord of the Rings, read extracts from Tolkien to the accompaniment of a live orchestra.
A literary festival with the name Bookfest has also been officially taking place in Frankfurt since 2018 on the exhibition grounds as well as in other parts of the city. The Leipzig festival Leipzig liest has been running since 1991, and with a total of 3,600 individual readings and discussions (in 2018), it is probably the largest European literary festival. It would be wrong to suppose that professionals only get together in Frankfurt: in Leipzig there are also a number of professional forums which host debates and presentations on topics such as electronic books, online book trading and book lending. Every three years the umbrella organisation for Germany’s libraries, BID (Bibliothek & Information Deutschland), organises a library congress which partly overlaps with the dates of the book fair. Both of the German book fairs are international, but the one in Frankfurt is much more so, involving many countries from outside Europe, particularly from Asia. The guests of honour have included countries such as New Zealand, Indonesia, China, Turkey and India. In contrast, Leipzig, with its ties to the Eastern Bloc, has focused more on central and eastern Europe since 1989, and so the guest countries have been from closer to home, such as Croatia (2008), Serbia (2011), Lithuania (2017) and Romania (2018). The Czech Republic has acted as guest of honour at the Leipzig book fair twice – in 1995 and 2019 – but has not yet done so in Frankfurt.
In terms of the international book trade, the second largest and most important book fair is the London Book Fair. Its history is incomparably shorter: the first London book fair was held in 1971. To begin with it was an exhibition of small and specialist publishers (Small and Specialist Publisher Exhibition – SPEX), aimed principally at librarians. Since then it has grown significantly, though even today it is still not open to the general public and is mainly attended by librarians and professionals from all areas of the book trade. The cost of entry is heavily discounted for those who register online in advance, stating their profession and area of interest. Incidentally, the book fair in Gothenburg, the most important Scandinavian event, had similar origins. It began as a seminar for librarians and, as the director of the Book World company Radovan Auer says, “a traditional book fair gradually grew up around it.” According to some statistics, it now ranks third in Europe in terms of visitor numbers.
Another of the most important book fairs is Bologna, which focuses on all genres of literature for children and young adults and has been held since 1965. It is intended exclusively for professionals and so, paradoxically, the audience it focuses on – children and young adults up to the age of 18 – are not allowed entry. Some people have criticized it for this and claimed it lacks dynamism as a result. However, others appreciate its relaxed artistic atmosphere and the fact that the stalls are “cheerful and cosy.”5Chalupská, Gabriela. Knižní veletrh dětské knihy: Bologna – město knih. Kapka: časopis pro čtenářskou veřejnost: knihovnické aktuality Pardubického kraje, (A Children’s Book Fair: Bologna – City of Books. Kapka: a magazine for the reading public: library updates for the Pardubice region), 2009, 3(9), p. 6. And in general it is recognized as the most important European platform of its kind, “unique in its character and crucial for those involved in literature for children and young adults,” according to Martin Reissner, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Ladění (Tuning), which focuses on the theory and criticism of children’s literature.
Book fairs are, of course, held in most European countries, and some have more than one: for example, in Belgium there is a Francophone one in Brussels and another, Flemish one in Antwerp. Sometimes there are even two in the same city: alongside the “general” book fair in Moscow, there is also another one specializing in non-fiction (and according to Lukáš Babka, director of the Slavonic Library, the book festival/fair which takes place every June on Red Square is growing in importance). From a global perspective there are also two events held outside of Europe which should be mentioned: the first is the book fair in Guadalajara in Mexico, the most important book fair in the Hispanic world, and the second is the largest literary festival in the world, which takes place in Jaipur in India along with the Jaipur Bookmark.6https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaipur_Literature_Festival. This was founded by the British writer William Dalrymple and the Indian author and publisher Namita Gokhale. Its growing influence is illustrated by the fact that in 2019 the opening address was given by the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Juergen Boos, and it has been attended by literary critics such as Martin Puchner, the German literary critic, philosopher and professor of English literature at Harvard and Berkley. In his book The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People (published in Czech as Svět ve slovech by Host, 2019), in which Puchner conceives of books as important actors in history, capable of conquering territory, forming nations and defining culture, he praises the Jaipur festival for being a place where the future of world literature is decided:
This was more like a rock festival, with food stands everywhere and people camped out on the ground or gathered in tents and buildings. It was large, drawing close to a hundred thousand visitors. Among the visitors, I met a car mechanic from the outskirts who had borrowed a motorbike to come here, an engineering student who took a day off to attend, and a rickshaw driver who held forth about this year’s celebrities as he honked his way through the traffic. “Oprah very nice lady – dark skin like me,” he shouted, referring to the previous year’s star, Oprah Winfrey. Not everyone was here for literature. Some had come to spot Bollywood stars and talk show hosts, while others were hunting for invitations to exclusive after-parties and private dinners, and some had just come for the fun of it. But the main draw was literature in all of its forms. Poets, dramatists, novelists and non-fiction writers were here for readings, lectures, discussions, dialogues, interviews, and informal conversations. Goethe, with his advocacy of far-flung world literature, would have been pleased. Not all parts of the world were equally represented. Perhaps because of the background of the two founders, the festival revolved around a British-Indian axis, though there was a smattering of writers from other parts of the world, including the United States. English dominated, and there was a good deal of hand-wringing, mostly in English, about the dominance of global English. But there were also sessions held in Indian languages ranging from Tamil in the south to Himalayan languages in the north… For anyone worried about the future of reading and writing, I recommend very highly this true combination of literature and festival.
Book World and the wrangling over the Prague book fair
Czech booksellers and publishers traditionally used to visit the fairs in Germany; for example, Daniel Adam of Veleslavín travelled to Frankfurt in 1597 and Jiří Melantrich of Aventin in 1599. Today the most important book fair in the Czech Republic is Book World in Prague. It didn’t have to vie for supremacy in this country as Frankfurt had to in Germany, but at the same time it wasn’t immediately clear who would organize it and what form it would take. Eva Novotná from the Czech National Library sees the prototype as being a pre-Christmas book market which was organised on the premises of the Clementium in 1991 and featured around forty publishers: “We put together some tables and stands, some people came armed with their own folding furniture, and amazingly the browsers and buyers just kept on coming.”
However, the official date of the first book fair is considered to be 1994. The British company Avencourt Exhibition came up with the idea of a book fair in Prague. It was called the International Book Fair and was organized by Michael March, an American writer, poet and journalist who had been living in Prague since 1996. The first event was held in the Palace of Culture and, according to Jitka Šteflová, despite initial misgivings, the fair was a success. Subsequently, however, a problem arose in the form of the differing visions of the British organizers and Czech participants. The Western publishers saw the fair primarily as an opportunity to develop their own image, while for the Czech publishers it was mainly about information and distribution. As a result, opposition to the British conception gradually began to form. Czech booksellers and publishers came together as the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers, headed by the bookseller Jan Kanzelsberger. This opposition culminated in the idea of establishing a separate book fair. In 1995 the Brits ran into trouble when their contract with the Palace of Culture was terminated, forcing them to make do with the smaller venue of the Trade Fair Palace. The Czechs acquired premises at the Prague Exhibition Grounds for their Book World fair. The two competing book fairs were held at the same time, and in the end the Czechs triumphed: they had three times more exhibitors than the competition and the attendance was considerably higher. The English book fair collapsed and Michael March was left with only the literary part of the programme, which gradually developed from readings at the Viola café into today’s Prague Writers’ Festival. As Radim Kopáč noted, these two events can actually complement each other and, combined with the Authors’ Reading Month in Brno, could form an “ideal trio.”
Since that time, both Book World and the Writers’ Festival have been trying to secure funding from Prague City Council and the Ministry of Culture with varying degrees of success – in some years there has been a reduction in the amount applied for or granted. March responded to this with a rather over-the-top statement in 2013, claiming that he was being subjected to political censorship. According to the information currently available, the 2020 Writers’ Festival will not receive any money from the City Council because “the impact of the festival in the media and among the public is not proportionate to the funds invested in it.”
Book World has also faced numerous difficulties: it had to contend with the destruction of the left wing of the Palace of Industry in a fire in 2008, as well as temporary falls in the number of visitors and the withdrawal of small publishing houses. Some journalists, such as Daniel Konrád in 2014, mocked it for being “a trade fair people go to in search of bargains amidst the pandemonium”. And even though distinguished guests have appeared there, Konrád glossed over this in his article and somewhat tendentially drew a stark contrast between Book World and the Writers’ Festival, which, on the other hand, many people have criticized for being overly elitist: “Book World cannot boast anything as significant as the appearance by Orhan Pamuk at last year’s Prague Writers’ Festival or the visit by Don DeLillo three years ago. And just like last year, the book fair has been unable to expand into the public space and acquire a curator who could provide it with a unified form and coherent programme that would make it worth people’s while to travel to Prague.” However, in subsequent years these gloomy predictions did not come true. On the contrary, under the direction of Radovan Auer, Book World managed to lure back smaller publishers such as Torst, Labyrint, Triáda and Dauphin, who were given a separate marquee,7The fact it was located on the periphery was criticized by some people, as visitors might supposedly have perceived this as forced separation. thereby helping to revitalize the area in front of the Industrial Palace. Auer’s current collaborator is Guillaume Basset, a French writer living in Prague, who is the festival programmer of Book World but was previously deputy director of the Prague Writers’ Festival.
Among those taking part are also popular literary influencers (Lucie Zelinková) and Youtubers like Martin Rota or Kovy, who made a successful appearance on the new Humbook Stage, which attempts to reach out to a younger audience. Last year they were even able to invite two Nobel Prize winners – Herta Müller and Mario Vargas Llosa. This was perhaps one reason why Book World 2019 attracted a record number of visitors – 52,000 – something which even earned praise from journalists: “Radovan Auer and Guillaume Basset have proved that the book fair and literary festival have enormous European potential, that it is possible to shake them up, revive them and make them more attractive to visitors – and not at the expense of quality: no hot dogs, dirt-cheap beer or free coffee.” The editor-in-chief and co-owner of Host publishers, Miroslav Balaštík, was also effusive in his praise for the book fair: “It was probably the best year I can remember in terms of the programme and the international and Czech writers involved.”
What do visitors expect from book fairs these days?
According to a study by Book World, 62% of visitors are there to buy books, 41% for the atmosphere, 35% for debates and discussions with famous people, 22% for book signings, 20% to come across authors they hadn’t heard of before and 19% to meet friends. And what about the writers? Some of them have openly declared that participating in book fairs takes up too much of their time and energy, which is why they rarely do so (Jáchym Topol). In the case of Martin Vopěnka, it leads him to reflect on nothingness and transience – in his view, we shouldn’t attach too much importance to those 30 minutes of “fame”: “It’s just a tiny drop in the ocean”. Others use them as an opportunity for pleasant discussions (Radkin Honzák). Marek Toman appreciates the possibility of getting together with readers and finding out what they think of his books, and he also makes use of theatrical and visual performances for this. For Kateřina Tučková it is an opportunity to see new places, meet other writers and hone ideas about literature and about society in general: “I see it as a really important complement to the solitary work in the hermitage of the study.”
Jakub Pavlovský, who has an Instagram profile and used to run the YouTube channel Book’s Calling, sees the role of book fairs as being places to meet and break down barriers: “There’s the world of bookstagrammers and booktubers on the one hand and the world of offline book lovers on the other, and those two worlds come together at these festivals and book fairs more than anywhere else, which is why I’m very positive about their future.” Radka Denemarková, who also receives invites to book fairs outside of Europe – among other things, she was the first Czech author to take part in the book fair in Guadalajara – talks about them in similar terms, emphasizing their role in overcoming national borders: “In general we are still caught up in ideas about national literatures, but the concept of world literature has existed since the time of Goethe. Goethe never used the term English or Italian author, but a writer from England or Italy. And there’s a difference. We don’t have to be imprisoned within the borders and ideas of the literature of the country where we happen to have been born. Artists have to be free. They belong to all countries. Literature is a planet in itself. In recent years the nationalism of various populists has strengthened the international solitary between the authors who meet at these literary festivals, emphasizing that literature is the shared property of humanity, it is to be found everywhere, at all times, within thousands and thousands of people.”
A world literature fair?
Book fairs and festivals are places where people with different opinions, values and backgrounds can meet face to face. That will always give rise to controversy over how far freedom of speech extends and who should be given a platform to present their own opinions – or propaganda. For example, whether to invite a country that has failed to uphold a satisfactory level of democratic standards (in 2011 Book World was criticized for choosing Saudi Arabia as the guest of honour, and Frankfurt two years earlier for inviting China). And then whether to invite writers whose presence might cause some people offence – for example, the continued controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie, whose presence led to Iran’s withdrawal from Frankfurt in 2015.8In the end, Rushdie did not actually appear at Jaipur as the risks were too great. Not even a compromise solution of Rushdie speaking via Skype was deemed acceptable. “In the interest of safety the organisers decided to cancel the lecture completely. Some participants were so angered by this censorship that they began to recite extracts from the Satanic Verses at the festival and, as a result of these illegal activities, had to immediately leave Jaipur and India,” wrote Puchner. Or, on the other hand, whether to allow an appearance by someone who is problematic from the organiser’s perspective – for this reason Radovan Auer prevented Jiří Kajínek’s book signing at Book World, as he regarded him as a habitual offender glamorising crime. It will always be (at least partially) a commercial event, but it is important that commercial considerations do not completely dominate.
No matter how these book fairs originated, today they are something which combines the atmosphere of an enormous fair, a café, a conference and a debating arena (according to the Australian literary scholar Millicent Weber, these events represent “a new, dynamic and transmedia public sphere”).9Weber, Millicent: Literary Festivals and Contemporary Book Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, p. 233. And some of them might temporarily take on the character of a carnival or festival: according to Auer, Frankfurt sets the tone, so a tendency towards “festivalness” can perhaps be expected from other book fairs too. For some people, book fairs might be about cheap books, while for others they are about ideas – and these two things are not, or need not be, mutually exclusive. (If an event is billed as a “book fair,” then it is logical that physical sales should take place at it. According to Brian Moeran, a retired professor of “Business Anthropology” at the Copenhagen Business School, there is a “tournament of values” playing out at book fairs which is transformed into financial profit.)10Moeran, Brian, Pedersen, Jesper Strandgaard, ed. Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries: Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events. 1st pub. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 136. Frankfurt and Leipzig are visited by many groups of teenagers and families enjoying a day out, but other visitors might experience (or at least imagine) the concept of world literature as envisaged by Goethe materializing or playing out in front of them. Or they might lament the fact that some sections of the book industry are becoming unified across the world, as Petr Matoušek observed in Bologna: “If we were to count up all the interchangeable versions of one work and declare them to be one and the same book, then the total number of titles on display would be reduced by a sixth at a stroke.”11Matoušek, Petr. Chrám literatury pro děti se sice sklonil, ale nepadá. (The temple of children’s literature may be sagging, but it is not falling down.) Nové knihy, 1998, 38(16), p. 11. As Brian Moeran wrote, “There are as many experiences of every book fair as there are people attending it.”12Moeran, Brian, Pedersen, Jesper Strandgaard, ed. Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries: Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events. 1st pub. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 127.