By Hannah Johnson | @hannahsjohnson
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Grütters: ‘Tenacity and Strong Nerves’In what’s normally a who’s who of German publishing and culture, the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Buchmesse took place today in a mostly empty room—an experience that Tarek Al Wazir, minister of economics, energy, transport and housing for the state of Hesse, described as “surreal.” While the in-person audience may have been lacking, the speakers’ heartfelt emotions about books and the future of the fair were not.
Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister of culture and media, began her remarks by addressing Frankfurter Buchmesse president and CEO Juergen Boos directly.
“You and your team, Mr. Boos, have made the best of this situation,” she said, “and created an innovative concept that allows publishers to present themselves, their titles, and their authors on virtual stages online.
“For the commitment, for the tenacity and the strong nerves it takes to make a special edition of the book fair into a virtual festival of diversity and to send signals of hope and possibility to the literary world, thank you very much. I am happy that we are able to support you with funding from the federal culture budget.”
Grütters has been steadfast in her support of Germany’s cultural sector during the pandemic. Under her leadership, Frankfurter Buchmesse, along with many other cultural organizations and individuals, have received funding from the German government as part of the Neustart Kultur stimulus package allocated in June and totaling €1 billion (US$1.2 billion). The aim is to support cultural organizations that have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Before handing the stage over to Boos, Grütters added a wistful conclusion to her remarks: “I’m already looking forward to experiencing the literary diversity of the fall season next year and everything that goes with it: book fair stands and the guest of honor pavilion, receptions and crowds, and live readings and discussions in front of large audiences.”
And in a short video message, Canadian prime minster Trudeau also expressed his support for the Frankfurt Book Fair and Canada’s guest of honor presence, both at this year’s digital fair and at what’s expected to be a physical fair in 2021.
“As we continue to deal with the pandemic, we must always remember that we are one global community and look for ways that will bring us closer together. This fair…is doing just that,” said Trudeau.
Boos: ‘We Had To Think on Our Feet’
Boos acknowledged the challenge of shifting the fair from physical to digital in such a short time frame. “It’s been a stressful year. We’ve been fighting hard for the book fair,” he said.
And while he said he would miss the personal encounters at the book fair this year, he also said that looking back on this tumultuous time, he wouldn’t do anything differently. “We didn’t have a crystal ball” to see the future. “We had to think on our feet.”
Picking up on these themes of adaptiveness and resilience, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, president of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels—Germany’s publishers and booksellers association—and publisher of Verlag Hermann Schmidt, said she’s seen the German book business quickly transition and respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Calling it “the miracle of the book industry,” Schmidt-Friderichs pointed to bicycle deliveries from bookstores, special pick-up stations for online book orders, and social media marketing as evidence that “this industry proved to be astonishingly resilient” during the pandemic.
She also credited Grütters and the federal funding for the ongoing strength of the country’s book industry and Frankfurter Buchmesse, saying, “Without the generous support of the German government, we would not be standing where we are standing right now.”
Like her fellow speakers, Schmidt-Friderichs expressed regret that the physical fair wasn’t able to take place this year. “Many people will agree, today I feel a bit sad because I realize what we’re missing this week. We need the physical Frankfurt Book Fair, we need the platform, and the encounters.”
Al Wazir in his remarks was optimistic about the fair, saying, “The Frankfurt Book Fair has survived worse things than the coronavirus pandemic.” He added that holding the fair this year, despite the physical restrictions, is a signal of hope in itself.
Concluding the opening ceremony was a video message from Israeli writer and 2017 Booker International Prize winner David Grossman—who was also in Frankfurt in 2010 to receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. His compelling and eloquent message, embedded below, was one of hope and reassurance—and a celebration of the role of writers in society.
“Being asked to talk about hope is a good thing,” Grossman said in his video. “Perhaps this is how I may find the strength to act against the gravitation of anguish and sadness, which I have felt since COVID-19 entered my life.”
And from international industry trends to curated guides to the many online events during this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, our digital magazine offers you the information you need to make the most of the fair and the rest of 2020.