Unfurling The Publishing Umbrella: Dispatch From Frankfurt

October 18, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 6 min read

This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.

No better does the difference between books and the book business make itself known than on the Sunday of the Frankfurt Book Fair. A severe degree of indifference descends on one Hall as rabid bookishness thrives in others. I had been warned, but the bustle of the first few days caused me to chalk up these claims to hyperbole. After endless meetings between publishers and sales people, agents, printers, packagers, fulfillment houses and foreign rights managers – and don’t forget the nights that can easily last all morning – the weekend (especially Sunday) was dead in the Frankfurt Messe’s Hall 8: the cavern of commerce that housed, primarily, English-language publishers.

With the chance to visit one of the other Halls (there are 10, making the Javits Center in New York look like my one-bedroom apartment), you begin to grasp the breadth of what publishing looks like all over the world, so long as you are willing to contend with the throngs of book fans, only a small portion of whom bother to trawl the Hall 8 aisles, where by noon on Sunday the crackling of packing tape replaced the cacophonous chatter of deal making so constant during the early going.

It is an overwhelming experience, no matter the size of the company or nature of its books or services. Everyone is there to do business (as opposed to show off books). My visits to other halls were limited in light of how much time I spent at the Messe from Tuesday evening’s set-up to Sunday evening’s teardown. I never saw the agents’ pavilion, or the TV and Film Hall. The other international Halls hosted publishing industry outfits from across the globe, all of which were situated in loose regional confederacies.

The hometown German publishing Hall was packed all the time, as was Hall 4, where you found illustrated book publishers and incredibly high-end book arts publishers and artisans (including New York’s own Booklyn). I returned to Hall 4 the most (for my own meetings and for curiosity’s sake). If I could read German, I would covet all of Orange’s books; Index from Spain is great; the books from Lars Mueller were a revelation – Who Owns the Water being one of my better personal acquisitions of the week.

But, as I said, and as The New York Times reported, Frankfurt at its core is about the business of books. According to the October 13 Frankfurt Book Fair Daily, in 2006 the world’s 45 largest publishers generated $73 billion in revenue! Yes, billion. McGraw-Hill Education came in 7th on the list, the most profitable American publisher with just over $2.5 billion in earnings. The next two spots also belong to American companies, Reader’s Digest and Scholastic respectively. Of those three companies’ business, very little of it has to do with fiction, or even trade books for that matter. The top earners are more mixed, highlighting, like the Fair itself, just how huge the global book industry is, and why wheeling and dealing foreign rights and film options are one of the event’s priorities.

And so, after several days steeping in this environment, it only seems natural to ponder the state of the book business today. It is lucrative, but it is clear that if these larger companies intend to plump their cash cows they must make changes that will, eventually, affect the actual books.

Two encounters stick with me as indicative of these shifts. The first happened during a wonderful little dinner party. Of the 10 or 12 of us in attendance, I was the most “indie” of the crew, meaning I have never been involved in a six-figure deal (or five-figure for that matter). These were agents and industry entrepreneurs, Americans and Europeans. Friendly and interesting, I was sorry that we adjourned to a noisy party where reasonable conversation went by the wayside.

Prior to that, however, I learned about DailyLit.com from its co-founder Susan Danziger. The basic idea is this: books are emailed to you bit-by-bit. Available titles include public-domain classics, as well as contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction in a few different languages (illustrated books are also in the works). The contemporary books require paid subscriptions, and I was told that the program’s subscribers number in the hundreds of thousands. It seems to me that it is misleading to say this service is about reading books; it’s really more about reading the textual contents of books. It is, without a doubt, though, about publishing. A great deal of us, myself included, spend large amounts of time in front of screens. DailyLit.com aims to add some well-worded and intriguing distractions to help us better use our Time, that ever more elusive and flitting notion. The trend to reformat books into our digitally reliant ways was apparent at the Fair, from Google’s impressive stand to the number of e-book makers, sermonizing about convenience and lifestyle, efficiency and the future.

As I manned the Mark Batty Publisher booth on Sunday morning, bored and tired, an Australian woman stopped to fondle a few of the books. As she flipped the pages issuing exclamations about the lovely photographs and design, she mentioned that she worked with e-books. I nodded and said that I would never read one. Having obviously heard such a sentiment before, the perky Aussie said defensively, “We’ll get you all one day, this is the future of reading.” Judging by the popularity of DailyLit.com (a relatively new endeavor) and the hordes of money being invested in converting such assertions into fact, there are many interests that want to see the future of reading as something that does not involve ink on paper. And in light of the way we live now, perhaps the public’s demand will in fact secure these new models.

But this next anecdote contests the public’s willingness to start dismantling their bookshelves in order to make room for new flat-screen televisions on which they could as easily watch a movie or read a new novel. This encounter happened even farther away from the capacious Messe, at the bar in my hotel out by the airport. I met a German engineer in town for work, and on his way back home to Connecticut. He knew of the Fair, but his trip had to do with installing a machine in a factory. He was curious about the Fair for a very exact reason, however. He had a meeting coming up with a Silicon Valley company (he had already signed a non-disclosure agreement so he could not tell me which company) that, according to my new friend, planned to open close to 60 print-on-demand facilities in the United States within the next couple of years.

Because this gentleman could not divulge fully the nature of the business in question, it is fair to assume that these facilities would not strictly be used for vanity publishing, but rather they will allow businesses to order an array of printed material with greater ease than traditional off-set printers, though he did ask me if I had seen many print-on-demand books. His background was in printing and he was dubious about the quality of the books such machines could offer, suggesting that vanity publishing was indeed an aspect of this Silicon Valley company’s business plan. No matter the products made in these 60 facilities, it is a return to ink on paper. We as a culture have not yet totally disregarded the paper page’s status as a valuable vessel for information.

In the case of vanity publishing books, however, these would mostly be sold through non-traditional outlets, if they were sold at all. These products would be the blog equivalent of codex books, objects made because the authors want to see their words printed on bound pages. And like with blogs, some of these books could of course be quite good, while many of them would doubtlessly be middling, yet they would exist nonetheless. (Admittedly, the major difference between blogs and print-on-demand books is that the books usually still cost something.) Hang around with enough writers and you will inevitably hear frustrated rants about the difficulty of getting their completed works published. Take that small portion of the population and couple it with everyday folks who want to tell their stories or spout off about politics, and you have lots of potential books.

Now, these books, for the most part, would not be shopped around in a setting like Frankfurt, but that is the point. Books and the book business are not the same and the rift becomes apparent during this international trade show, which is so all-consuming for its attendees that it bounces back at them time and again, even once the day’s meetings have ended and the parties begin. I knew this, of course, because even in the small and independent strata of publishing this reality rears its head more than I care to admit. It is a business that no matter the scale requires many participants, all of whom expect, and deserve, to be paid for their services.

Perhaps at the heart of this is how the range of services that falls under the publishing umbrella is expanding, and how all of the interests strive, and struggle, to keep up. The Frankfurt Book Fair has a history that reaches back to the time of Gutenberg, and what this behemoth of an event proves is that it will most likely have a future that extends for another 500 years. What that future looks like remains to be seen, but the hints become more apparent, as this year’s innovations become next year’s standards, or running jokes.

No matter what, however, the beautifully designed and well-printed book is not going anywhere, and that should be a comfort to anyone that has ever loved the experience of reading one.

is the co-author of the recently released Camera Crazy and he is currently working on a 33 1/3 about the Grateful Dead album Workingman's Dead. Keep up with him @buzzpoole.

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