Remembering Fred Kobrak, Our Friend and Colleague

In Feature Articles by Hannah Johnson17 Comments

Fred Kobrak, 1928-2016

By Hannah Johnson | @hannahsjohnson

On December 12, 2016, publishing industry veteran and my good friend Fred Kobrak died. He was 88 years old.

Like many other people who got to know Fred, I first met him at a book fair. He loved book fairs—especially the Frankfurt Book Fair, which he attended for 56 consecutive years.

For three years, Fred and I manned the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Hall 8 info stand together. I was fresh out of college, and he was at the Fair for the 49th time. He insisted we be there at 8 a.m. each morning, and we stayed until the booming intercom voice told us the Fair was closed for the day.

Every day, our info stand hosted a steady stream of publishing VIPs, who all stopped by to talk to Fred. He’d easily switch from English to German, then Dutch to Spanish, followed by a little French or Portuguese.

He introduced me to everyone he talked to. He told me stories about being followed by the KGB during his trips to the former Soviet Union, of selling chemistry books to a king in Africa, and of the rise and fall of publishing companies around the world.

Through Fred’s eyes, book publishing was a noble and glamorous enterprise. There was no better person to initiate me into the world of books than Fred.

Fred and me, working the Frankfurt Book Fair info stand in 2007

“Fred Kobrak was a wonderful friend to so many of us in publishing and at the Frankfurter Buchmesse,” said Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. “We’ve lost one of the great book people of our time. He truly cared about the international publishing community and generously shared his decades of experience, expertise, and friendship with us.”

Frankfurt Book Fair director Juergen Boos with Fred Kobrak, 2008

After spending his career traveling the world for publishers like Macmillan and Thomson, Fred amassed an understanding of the global book business unlike anyone else’s.

He worked at Macmillan for 35 years, first in international sales and eventually as the President of Collier Macmillan International in London. After retiring, he worked for 10 years as a consultant to Thomson.

Fred continued to actively participate in the international book publishing community well into his retirement. He was an avid member of the Association of American Publishers. He flew around the world to attend meetings of the International Publishers Association.

One of Fred’s remarkable traits was his willingness to share what and who he knew, and to help his fellow publishers. He relished conversations with people who were getting started in publishing, and with people from all over the world.

“The international publishing community mourns the passing of Fred Kobrak, a man who dedicated his life work to bringing books, education and ideas to the global audience and whose passion, dedication and commitment will continue to inspire,” said Seth Russo, VP, International Sales at Simon & Schuster. “Fred was a citizen of all the world who shared his knowledge and wisdom freely. He will be deeply missed by his many friends and colleagues.”

Ulrike von Lehsten, who worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux for 25 years and was a long-time friend of Fred’s, remembered him this way: “I met Fred around 50 years ago at the love of his life: the book fair in Frankfurt…He was such a generous human being: helping where he could, listening to other opinions, always in a friendly mood but also strict to his values. He much preferred to give than to take.”

For several years, my husband and I lived a few blocks away from Fred in New York City. We met for dinner at Turkish, Persian and Japanese restaurants. We met his family, and he met ours.

Who would have thought that such a wonderful friendship might start at a Frankfurt Book Fair info stand? Fred would have. He believed in the power of a book fair to build relationships, and he cherished the friends he had made over his many decades working in publishing.

Those of us who knew Fred will truly miss him.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

Hannah Johnson is the Publisher of Publishing Perspectives. Before joining PP in 2009, she worked as Project Manager at the German Book Office New York. Find her on Twitter @hannahsjohnson.

Comments

  1. Thank you, that is truly a gift you have given us, a different side of our dad that we didn’t always get to see, we always knew of his love of books and Frankfurt, but you have given us some precious insights today as well. Thank you for honoring him this way.

  2. Thank you Hannah. That was indeed Fred. A side of him I knew about and got to see first hand for the first time in 1999. FBF was his family, together with the one he was born into and the one he constructed. A many faceted family man. His families already miss him and we’re all privileged to have had him in our lives.

  3. I always enjoyed seeing Fred at every book from, from the Frankfurt Book Fair to the Frankfurt Book Fair stand at Book Expo. He was always friendly and his love of books, book fairs, and people was consistent. Although unfortunately I didn’t know Fred personally, he stood for what is best in our industry and in the world of international book deals and relationships. Thanks for sharing about Fred, Hannah. RIP Fred.

  4. Dear Hannah,

    Thank you for these wonderful memories. We always knew about his love of the Frankfurt Book Fair (“Where’s Pap?”, “It’s October, where do you think he is?”), but I’m not sure I really knew how much he was loved by the Frankfurt family. And thank you and Thomas for your friendship to him in New York. Love, Paul.

  5. I was quite sure Fred would live forever. Sorry he turned out to be mortal. This is truly the end of an era.

  6. Upon entering the halls in Frankfurt, London, BookExpo or any other venue where Fred was present, it was always important for me to make sure that I saw Fred and chatted with him. It made the event “official.” I will miss him greatly, for his humanity, his love of our business and for his amazing and untiring work and encyclopedic knowledge at these events that would put a much younger person to shame. He was a unique person who was truly irreplaceable.

  7. Fred was everything that is good about publishing. Indomitable, always gracious and generous, and a truly amazing internationalist. What sad news, but what a privilege to have known him. A life well lived, and an inspiration to many of us all around the globe.
    Huge sympathy to the family. Publishers everywhere are thinking of you.

  8. It is hard to believe that Fred has gone: he was already a figure in the trade when I started working with him over 40 years ago and was still busy long after I retired. His energy, depth of knowledge and goodwill were unmatched. The stories of his doings, not just at Frankfurt but at book fairs in Bologna, Cairo, Jerusalem, Warsaw and Guadalajara were endless. Above all he was the best example of a true citizen of the world. It was indeed a privilege to have known him.

  9. Fred was instrumental in arranging for me to be transferred from Collier Macmillan Canada to the UK in January, 1968. We worked together for 2 1/2 years until I returned to CM Canada. Throughout my 50 year career we would always meet up in Frankfurt. I loved the man.

  10. One of my first open doors into New York publishing. And he kept that door open ever since. So terribly sad that this door is now shut forever. Fond memories of having known Fred!

  11. I once had the pleasure of writing about Fred and often had the pleasure of seeing him at BEA, AAP meetings etc, not to mention unexpected sightings when we’d run into each other on 74th Street, our mutual street. He was forever young, forever enthusiastic and enquiring, and interested in what was new and what was happening, however many more smile-line wrinkles were added that year: after all, he was the very first person who ever told me about Skype.

    He had a becoming modesty. He was a gentleman and a publisher. And he loved his family. I knew of his declining health and relocation. I do not walk outside his building without thinking of him, with a smile.

    Gayle Feldman

  12. Thank you for kindly showing us this side of my Oom Fred – We all knew his love of publishing but its wonderful to know that so many people knew this side too.

    Thank you

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