Richard Charkin in Frankfurt: Day Two

In News by Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin, now on his 51st Frankfurt, continues his observations with a look at the fair, the industry, and how it’s all holding up.

Decor from the corridor wall at Richard Charkin’s hotel in Frankfurt. It turns out to be practical. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘More Than 50 Fairs’
I‘m at Frankfurter Buchmesse wearing so many hats it’s hard to remember them all.

Richard Charkin

And, after more than 50 fairs and any number of jobs, responsibilities, and markets, I’m acquainted with so many people that my aging brain and consequently inevitable incoherent memory means that I’ve probably offended a number of people by ignoring them, forgetting their names, companies, or jobs, or misnaming them altogether.

It has got so bad that I introduced my longtime colleague and friend, the brilliant Kathleen Farrar, as sales and marketing supremo of Oxford University Press.  She is, of course supreme at Bloomsbury. I was just confusing roughly four decades of my life.

People frequently ask me how the book fair has changed over the past years. Read on.
Charkin on Changes

In Frankfurt. Image: Richard Charkin

The contemporary architecture of Frankfurt has deteriorated, if that were possible.

Image: Richard Charkin

This is the view from the window of my very expensive hotel room. What a joy to wake up to. And the blessedly short walk to the fair fails to lift spirits with these hideous buildings. How can a country whose designers have created Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Hugo Boss, the Autobahn, Bauhaus, and many other beautiful objects allow these monstrosities in one of their most affluent cities?

The fair is a bit smaller. There’s more space around the edges of the halls. There are fewer halls. It’s still the greatest and best window display for the world’s publishing output but it’s more concentrated, perhaps for the better.

The taxi queues are shorter, the crowds less claustrophobic, the bullshit index less pronounced, the drinks and sandwiches even more expensive—or maybe that’s simply a reflection of sterling’s post-Brexit decline against the euro.

The most noticeable change has been the huge reduction in the number of commissioning editors in a position to acquire translation rights from foreign publishers. And it makes one wonder who rights sellers are actually selling to. Of course, much of their previous activity has been cannibalized by literary agents whose numbers have burgeoned. But I think there’s another trend as well.

The fair used to be about publishers talking to publishers. We were interested in each other’s lists and marketing tricks, and new production developments. Now I sense it is others who are interested in publishing: the publishing services vendors; the digital businesses; AI (of course); logistics firms; other media.

Publishing is broadening its scope, being embraced by new and sometimes scary newcomers but still managing to keep its identity. Speaking of which, brand identity.

One conversation I had in the aisles was with one of the brightest new technology gurus around. We were discussing the fraught subject of AI-generated books which are threatening to flood the market. She quite rightly said that this made the brand of the author and publisher even more important as signposts to quality.

Some author brands are clear: Rowling, Clancy, and so on. But the vast number of authors have very little brand visibility. Even fewer publisher brands: apart from Penguin, Oxford, and Scholastic, the public has little or no publisher brand loyalty. And publishers themselves don’t help by manufacturing brands—imprints—at an ever-increasing rate and complicating things further by appending country origins, as in Simon & Schuster UK, which almost by definition labels the company’s ownership as not British, and which downgrades the one clear and important phrase, Simon & Schuster.

And one more picture. I spent some time in my hotel corridor trying to find my room.  There were no numbers on the doors. Eventually it dawned on me that the piece of art you see at the top of this column—from the wall of my hotel corridor—held the key. What a strange idea.

Tonight I have a posh dinner with lots of important people and too much to drink (probably). I hope I’ll be able to find my room again afterward.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s opinions are his own, of course, and not necessarily reflective of those of Publishing Perspectives.

Now available here for your free download, our 2023 Publishing Perspectives Frankfurt Book Fair magazine

Our 75th Frankfurt coverage from our Frankfurt Book Fair Magazine, which has been available throughout the trade show in print, is also available for your free download.

The magazine has more interviews with fellows and grant-program recipients from international publishing markets, as well as previews of programming from our Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurt including our Executive Talks with Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Nihar Malaviya and Nanmeebooks’ Kim Chongsatitwana; highlights of key events at the 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse; and coverage of Frankfurt’s upcoming guest of honor programs (Italy, the Philippines, the Czech Republic) and this year’s Guest of Honor Slovenia.

There’s also news of literary agents and agencies; award-winning books from guest of honor markets; focus articles on artificial intelligence, sustainability; and a forthcoming effort to get more Korean literature into world markets; as well as 75th-anniversary “Frankfurt Moments.”

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’