Frankfurt Preview: Director Juergen Boos Discusses Economy, Rights, China

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Juergen Boos“If you’re talking about an economic crisis, then you have to talk about an economic crisis hitting American and UK publishers alone,” said Frankfurt Book Fair director Juergen Boos on the eve of the opening of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. “Latin America has already come back from its economic crisis, which it experienced ten years ago, and Asia is still rising. The Fair is, like every year, 1,000 different fairs. For some, it is the fair of the crisis, for some it is the fair of big chances, for some it is an electronic book fair.” One thing Boos admits is that there is uncertainty out there. “Everyone is looking for new business models.”

Anecdotal reports suggest that US and UK exhibitors have reduced their presence by as much as 20%. Confronted with this figure, Boos says that in fact overall exhibition space at the Fair has only shrunk by 2% and the Fair has been bolstered by “quite a few new players, particularly from the BRIC countries, minus Russia.” Brazil, India and, of course, China are all making a big push at the Fair to attract new business. “People are still working, despite what happens in the US and the UK.”

On the rights front, Boos says that any reduced participation from the deep pocketed US and UK publishers is likely to be offset by an overall increase in the number of transactions taking place at the rights center. “We have 3-4% more people in the rights center. It has to do with the new business models: people are selling more rights to the merchandising people, the movie people, the game people. They are multiplying the number of deals that they are doing for a single book. Of course, the margins are going down, so they need to do more transactions to get to the same financial numbers as before.”

Boos, a former bookseller, still believes that the market begins and ends at the bookstore. “If you have bookstores that have a lot of stuff in them, with educated, well trained staff, it will bring in customers,” he says. “But, if you have a situation like you have in the US and UK, and increasingly in Germany, where they are reducing the number of staff in stores and you can find books in every supermarket, it becomes more difficult. I still believe a book is special and deserves special treatment in the retail market.”

Which is not to say that Boos is denying the impact of e-books on the market, but he asserts that the “Kindle is not the solution,” adding “this is,” while holding up his iPhone. He continues: “In the future, for some kinds of content, we may not have the book, but something digital that brings content from different sources you can sync up in one place where it is accessible to you digitally. Of course, there may be sources that we have not yet thought up.”

Ultimately, Boos believes the Fair is as much about “content” as “books.”

Unwittingly, the year at least, it’s also about politics. In the past month, Boos has weathered personal attacks from the German media for the Fair’s handling of China’s stint as Guest of Honor (which we’ve documented here and here). However, Boos remains adamant that the decision to invite China was the right thing to do at this time, even as it comes in the same year as the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an unfortunate coincidence in the minds of many Germans.

“We were motivated, at least at the start, by the fact that when we looked at backlist catalogs, the number of contemporary Chinese books that were translated into German and other European languages was almost nothing,” says Boos. “This year, because of China’s participation at the fair, there are more than 400 books that have been translated from Chinese into German.” Even more important is the simple fact that “this is the first time the Chinese have presented China and its culture on a large scale outside its borders.”

He says that criticism of the Fair as having “censored dissident Chinese voices” is simply untrue, and points out that of the approximately 550 events concerning China, only 250 are part of the official Chinese program while a further 350 are “unofficial,” and will, in fact, showcase a wide variety of perspectives. “We will have NGOs making presentations, dissident voices are here, there’s a representative speaking on behalf of Tibet,” said Boos, who adds, “There is an opportunity here at the Fair for the two sides to interact, the official and the unofficial. They don’t have to talk to each other, but the opportunity is there to do so if they wish to, if they want to listen to each other.”

Boos says that the controversy that overwhelmed much of the media about the Fair since early September is a “German-Chinese discussion” that others in Europe and elsewhere are overhearing. He reasserts that the ultimate duty of the Book Fair is to serve the trade: “Publishing is itself a political act, it’s a social act. The Book Fair has always had this political dimension, last year it was Turkey, which had serious issues with censorship, this year it is with China, which is a totalitarian state. It’s important to keep in mind that for our overseas visitors, this is primarily a trade fair. What it comes down to for them is it’s about doing business, and that remains their top priority.”

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.