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2003-12, 340, Book Fairs, Featured, Jurgen Wegner

Frankfurt Book Fair, 2003

If the Frankfurter Buchmesse 1 is Mecca to all those interested in books, then is it not beholden upon each and every one of us to at least visit it once in our lifetime? I have never been to a Frankfurt Book Fair before. This is partly because my own subject interest is not new, general, nor published books, and partly because the Frankfurt Book Fair is about the marketing of new books. There is also the expense. But mostly it’s been a lack of time and especially the chance of just being in Germany in any given October. When you travel privately you just have to combine at least five things, and I guess October’s never been a good time for me, my projects, and Germany.

I’d been sold a pup. Years ago I signed up for Air New Zealand frequent flyer points… In part from a desire to support the underdog; partly a romantic notion to associate with a culture that doesn’t have a burger-franchise-on-every-corner image; and I’d been doing a fair bit of work on New Zealand books and printing as well. On my first flight the cabin crew seemed largely made up of middle-aged men, men who to me looked as if they would have been more at home with a border collie than another bunch of jaded adventure trippers. So I insisted on flying Air New Zealand. Air New Zealand is now part of the global Star Alliance group, as is Lufthansa. So while I’d booked Air New Zealand to fly Air New Zealand (and having an Air New Zealand ticket), I’d actually be flying Lufthansa. At the airport I checked in with Qantas for the Thai Airlines flight to Bangkok. It had an immediate connection for the flight to Germany… on Lufthansa. Did I ever get to fly on an Air New Zealand plane? No.

The promos shown on board the last leg to Germany showed a group of typical Lufthansa staff. Men and women from various Asian and Southeast Asian racial backgrounds, Africans, and a stereotypically blonde German couple that would not have looked out of place on a former regime’s propaganda poster. All promoting German efficiency, reliability and soundness… without the slightest hint of irony. The first language of cabin staff seems to have been Thai, as was the menu. On our arrival and after a long time queuing, first one border police counter closed without comment or apology, then another. At the baggage roundabout 300 weary passengers looked forlornly at three circulating bags that seemed determined not to allow a fourth on board. No-one to ask, not even security police. Finally I cornered what might have been a Gastarbeiter [Ger., guest, i.e. migrant, worker]. Though it is hard to tell, as Germany is now equally famous for accepting migrant workers and refugees. Struggling with his German he spoke that word for all times, all places, and for all situations: Kaputt. If we wanted our bags we could either wait until something eventuated (and miss our connecting flights) or press on and claim them as lost baggage later. Wandering about, waiting for something to happen, I checked another roundabout in the distance. [From] “Ankara, Turkey” said the sign. And sure enough, there was my backpack. A little the worse for wear. One of the metal back supports was travelling a few feet behind, bent into the shape of a question mark. And the others…? As that other German fairy tale no less Grimm concludes: “And if they haven’t left the airport yet, they’re probably waiting for their luggage still”.

Welcome to the global village that is Germany. I mention this as everyone is subject to the colonial’s perspective of wonderment at what is “home” and “the old country” … And in my case that is “goot olt Djermenni”. While the gilt on the gingerbread may look slightly different – and even be shinier in some places – wherever you go the cake is pretty much the same. Made from a packet labeled Global Consolidated Foods with ingredients from factories in <name your developing country>. Is Germany any different? Friends and acquaintances kept saying: You must find Germany really different coming from Australia [said as if Canberra is the capital of Burkina Faso]. In fact, bar the language, I was … home. The labour prime minister of the moment was in trouble with an unruly coalition. He was faced with dwindling public support and a budget deficit. The papers were full of “the country’s broke”, “there are too many old people wanting to bludge off the system” without wanting to contribute, and pronouncements such as “it is not unreasonable to expect students to make some financial contribution to their educational costs”. Students were marching in the streets in protest. In Wiesbaden we were caught in traffic as thousands upon thousands of senior civil servants demonstrated against cuts to the public sector… including a whole phalanx of tax office staffers.

There is a big difference, of course, and that is the sheer mass of people and the closeness of everything. And the resultant variety, the availability, oversupply, and cheapness (!) of so many things 2 are great advantages. Not to mention a highly educated and literate society that has believed in prosperity coming as a result of an educated and trained workforce. I’d been given a week’s trade pass to the Frankfurt Book Fair worth about a hundred dollars. With so many visitors and hotels booked to capacity, many trade visitors would have to travel a considerable distance. Not to mention car hire, parking… The solution: You have a pass, you get free public transport to and from the fair from anywhere in the region. I could image another government closer to home slapping on a tax at the airport to help pay for more and “improved infrastructure”.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is an annual event held in the city’s trade fair centre, literally a suburb, and just beyond the inner city fringe. I’d boarded on a different line and had to change in Frankfurt and double back. City public transport seems clean, comfortable, and remarkably well organized. Later in Berlin there was literally an underground train every 5 to 7 minutes from the station at the corner. Not to mention the in-carriage television – where I was fortunate enough to catch the Greens snubbing George Dubbya – and screens inside that not only showed you the next few stations, but there are also announcements as to which side of the train you have to disembark from (for those with children, shopping strollers, or disabilities). The new Messe station leads directly into the fair. With so many visitors – especially international visitors–you’d expect everything to be well organized … And it is. Down to the vibrating massage li-lows to relax those stressed executive muscles. And all free, of course. As is the literature. So much literature! I picked up the 402-page summary of events, but limited myself severely with other promotional material. Germany still has subsidized printed matter rates based on the assumption that educational materials are essentials and not something that needs to be curtailed. But even at the full rate, postage is considerably less expensive than the Australian equivalent 3. Though even at this standard rate of ca. A$138 per 20kg parcel, collecting and sending free advertising material becomes a costly undertaking.

The Messe city is made up of eleven buildings, some administrative, but most containing exhibition halls. As the Frankfurt Book Fair is “the biggest book show in the world”, most of the facilities were in use. Some are the size of an aircraft hangar and would dwarf the proverbial jumbo jet. This is the 55th Frankfurt Book Fair 4, the first having been held in more modest surroundings in the Paulskirche in 1949. It superseded that traditionally held (and now held again) in Leipzig – the original European city of the book – then under Soviet control. I should add that apart from these two, Germany holds to my knowledge at least five other book fairs or major book festivals, including ones on radical underground books and a Minipressenmesse [ Ger., small press fair] at the prestigious Gutenberg Museum no less. This year there were 13 halls, most of which were devoted to the display and marketing of new print publications. A total of 6,638 publishers exhibited books from 102 countries, including 53 from Australia in a shared space. Over 335,000 titles were on display, of which about 75,000 were new publications, i.e. first-timers. The week’s proceedings included more than 3,000 special events, including 53 press conferences on specialist trade subjects. Over 1,000 authors presented themselves to the trade and their reading public. This year the featured country was Russia 5 and some 200 Russian publishing houses were in attendance, with 100 Russian authors presenting their works in person. In conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair about 700 special events on Russian books and cultural achievements were held in Frankfurt and the rest of Germany. I enjoyed a free Russian “pop” concert en plein air and saw the exhibition called The Russian Avant-Garde book, 1910-1934 6 especially brought out from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Just a bit daunting! My plan had been to do a quick walkthrough, then focus on areas of special interest. In the end I threw my hands up in despair, decided one week really was only enough to barely skim the surface, and plunged into the teeming mass of bookers, sampling at random. Imagine – hose of you from Sydney or Melbourne – opening time at the big Boxing Day sales at Grace Bros or Myers department stores and you’ll just about get the picture. On the first day the halls were packed (and remember this is a trade fair, and not open to the public until the last few days). People three-deep at stands hoping to get … what? Publisher’s catalogues …! Well, I’ll be damned. And here I thought (or people keep telling me) that the book is dead 7? But after all it’s opening day and this was to be expected. Lots of bright young punters … The second day was worse. And the third … By the second it was hard to even get your hands on any good publisher’s catalogues. And on the third, without exaggeration, the halls were so packed that I had difficulty moving along the isles from one end of a hall to another. While the emphasis is on marketing, it is all about reading, literacy … about education, knowledge, research … and self-education. Any one concerned about the future of the printed book really needs to go no further than the Frankfurt Book Fair 8.

Individual halls contained publishers related by speciality, subject area, region or language, grouped by general areas of specialisation. The international publishers covered four halls and included some large sections with French and Italian publishing houses. There was also a large group of Russian publishers, as well as a cultural hall devoted to, and with exhibitions of, the Russian book. Other halls and areas covered topics as diverse as literature, film and television, art books, non-fiction publishing, the graphic arts, sci-tech publishing, children’s books, tourism and travel, comics, religion … The Forum Film & TV offered services to those not only interested in film and the nexus of film and book, but a cinema as well. There was a Forum Innovations with Publishing Solutions to connect service providers such as printers with publishers seeking access to innovative digital technologies. There was also an Illustrator’s Centre showcasing the works of more than 600 book illustrators, an International Library Centre (which I successfully avoided), and the Press Centre supplying media information as well functioning as a contact point for the 12,000 or more journalists covering events. And Focus Forum Audiobooks. This is especially worth mentioning as I found here at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as throughout Germany generally, a remarkably strong interest in audio-books… for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

While my eclectic approach of sampling the cuisines by region, subject or language was perhaps unfocussed, it proved a better result than had I followed my own specialised interests. While the following three aspects are not necessarily serious interests of mine, they are given as an indication of the breadth and variety of material. There were a great many others, of course, of equal if not greater interest.

Comics are publications that are familiar to everyone. Most people will have some idea of what’s involved: Beano, Superman, Felix the Cat, and Peanuts spring readily to mind 9. Some may even have heard of manga and animé. Comics, clearly, are fillers intended for the semi-literate and other readers of the daily press and the Sunday papers. So why was there a Comics Centre in the hall devoted to children’s literature? A sign of falling literacy rates in Germany perhaps? There is naturally a fair amount of marketing involved in the Frankfurt Book Fair as this is the Book Fair’s purpose: To sell products and generate income. But ask yourself: Just what is a comic? What is its history? Some readers might be in for a surprise! I won’t expand on this diversion here other than to say that “comics” are a literary genre of greater interest and complexity than most people give them credit for. They are more than just vehicles for a quick laugh. Many comics provide a unique, subtle, vibrant fusion of text and image – now also via the medium of film – and have significant cultural standing in many countries. Not necessarily just in Anglo-America. I recently bought a copy of Sabin’s Comics, comix & graphic novelswhere the history of the comic is written almost exclusively from this Anglo-American perspective and with only a few pages devoted to “international” comics. What are we to make of chapter nine, International influences, comprising just 20 pages out of 240! This despite the comment: “Two of the most sophisticated comics industries in the world exist in Western Europe and Japan” (p. 217)? Shouldn’t a major published study on comics be substantially non-Anglo- American in any case?!

One of the books I obtained from the Korea Cultural & Contents Agency at the Comics Centre was on the comic in Korea 11. While generally promoting Korean comics – called manhwa – their main aim is of course the sale of English language republication rights. The modern Korean comic has a long and undiscovered history equal in interest to that of the West. Content ranges from short cartoons to graphic works several thousand pages long. In 2001 over 9,000 titles were published in 42 million copies, accounting for about 26.5% of all publications. This market generates about €130 million (ca. A$224 million). While there is both a new and second-hand market for manhwa, you can also read them in specialist libraries called manhwabang. Some of these are open 24 hours a day and you can sit, read, and pay by the hour. Today there are online manhwa web comics and even manhwa available via your mobile phone. Naturally our interest would be in Anglo- American comics (and even those of Ozzie), but should we really know so little and have so little interest in French, Italian, Scandinavian, and Japanese comics, or even the Korean manhwa? How many serious collections here contain anything more than a sampling of comics from non-Anglo-American countries?

For me the most surprising thing at the fair was the popularity of the collectors’ facsimile edition and the proliferation of specialist facsimile publishing houses. By this I mean not the scholarly reprint or the mass market text republished, but the luxury limited edition book republishing in exact facsimile rare and early manuscripts or printed books. From memory I recall at least 15 individual stands – some quite large – devoted solely to the display and sale of such works. The publishers are predominantly European, especially Austrian, Italian and Swiss, though there was also a formidable Spanish publisher in attendance. Publications can range from the very small to ones requiring two people to lift and display. What they all have in common is an equally impressive price tag as production costs are high, even where editions reach production targets of 1,000 or more copies. Examples include more bibles than you can shake a stick at – including Gutenberg bibles in manuscript and printed form (also reproduced in CDROM format!) – books of hours, atlases, and a sprinkling of scientific works. Botanical works were particularly splendid and there was a medical encyclopædia, illuminated manuscripts of every description, maps, Greek papyri, works on travel and exploration, herbals, music codices, facsimile bindings originally in gold and silver, the Koran and other Arabic manuscripts, a miniature catechism from 1525, and my personal favorite, a facsimile of a manuscript from a library in Armenia featuring a splendid carved ivory binding in reproduction.

The Russian hall also contained one such publisher, the Monplaisir Elite Book Club that offers to its members (named “luxury book lovers”) limited edition facsimiles in editions of 30 to 100 copies only of books both ancient and modern … A kind of upmarket Russian Folio Society? A rare bible, the classics in early Russian editions, horse books, books on numismatics, and one on erotic menus. There is even a specialist antiquarian dealer in these facsimiles whose catalogue of 190 titles was issued to celebrate his 10th anniversary. Prices here ranged from a modest €115 (ca. A$198) to €13,800 (ca. A$23,793). My own interests lie, of course, with the catalogues of these publishers, not their productions. In part by virtue of impoverishment rather than from choice. These catalogues are usually very extensive and well-produced, and provide a wealth of information not only on the publication itself, but details on the methods of production, specifications, printing, paper and binding.

Finally, I had also wanted to meet someone I have had contact with on and off for over a decade. While the Frankfurt Book Fair is devoted to the sale and marketing of books, its management is also aware of the practical economic value in linking current commercial intent with that thick flow of culture, history and craft that is our book heritage. Along with the newest of new technology, a sizeable piece of book fair real estate was given over to the trade technical colleges, including printing schools and their work (Leipzig and Stuttgart), as well as a university book history institute (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz’s Institut für Buchwissenschaft) and a book collectors’ society (Gesellschaft der Bibliophilen). A very large area called Platz der Buchkunst [Ger., the Square or Meeting Place of the Book Arts] contained the stands of many private presses, most of whom I suspect could hardly have afforded the cost of lighting and air-conditioning. Alongside artists some plyers of printer’s sundries (machinery, equipment and type), an exhibition of traditional letterpress printing, as well as a display of book art. This year the theme of the book arts display was the premiered country, Russia, and a few of the examples of Russian book art on display were of such high quality they took my breath away.

This event is largely coordinated by Heinz Stefan Bartkowiak, best described as the international private press human dynamo. Bartkowiak has for well over a decade tirelessly and selflessly promoted private press and artists’ books in Germany, Europe, and now internationally through talks, events, exhibitions, fairs and display, and especially his international publication Bartkowiak’s forum book art 12. He was here to promote its new 21st edition. The yearbook is an education in itself with over 560 pages of articles, descriptions, reviews and shorter snippets of information … anything from fairs and exhibitions, societies, competitions, presses and publications, names and addresses, to articles as diverse as ones on pastepapers, mail art, and the Joan Flasch Artists’ Books Collection. I had especially wanted to catch up with him and talk about his plans to put this information – much of which is pictorial and in colour – in a web-based version or database. An invaluable resource if Eurofunding can be obtained, and maintained.

After a few punishing days at the Frankfurt Book Fair it was on to Belgium, thence Berlin and Leipzig, for a further diet of libraries, special collections, book and printing museums, and of course … bookshops old and new. But that – as they say – is another bedtime story! As far as the Frankfurt Book Fair is concerned (and the rest of my travels only confirmed my thoughts on this) it is remarkable how isolated and insular we Australians still are – intellectually, if these days not quite so much physically. The Internet provides no substitute for an education … or life. And the current social and political imperative of national navel-gazing can only result in a tyranny of another kind?

Jürgen Wegner


1  See also the Frankfurt Book Fair website http://www.frankfurt-bookfair.com/en/portal.html

2  In Belgium friends had made a lunch of local bread, cheese from Holland, and wine from France (“It’s only a few minutes across the border”). A large quality Camembert (200g) from France cost €1.25 (ca. A$2.15), a large mango €-, 39 (ca. 68 cents). Of course, direct currency conversions are meaningless as a basis for comparison. Still, I was surprised at how cheap everything was compared with Australia.

3  A comparison with 20kg postal rates from Australia are A$338.50 by air and A$254.50 economy rate.

4  The following information is taken from their portfolio [Press kit], Frankfurt am Main, Press & Corporate Communication, Ausstellungsund Messe GmbH des Börsenvereins des Deutschen Buchhandels, 2003, and Final press information on the Frankfurt Book Fair 2003 [electronic resource], http://www.frankfurt-bookfair.com/en/index. phpcontent=/en/unternehmen/pr_service/pressemitteilungen/details/05907/content.html


5  “According to information from the Russian Chamber of Books, Russian publishers last year produced 80,290 titles with total printings of 720.3 million copies. This represents an increase in titles of 15.1 per cent and a rise of 21.8 per cent in the number of copies printed”, Frankfurter Buchmesse (2004), Newsletter [electronic resource], Feb. 2004 ed., http://www.frankfurt-book-fair.com/en/index.php?content=/en/unternehmen/newsletter/tlp.html


6 A book on this collection was published recently as: The Russian avantgarde book 1910-1934 / Margit Rowell, Deborah Wye, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2002.


7  The book is dead, long live the book!


8  For a humorous spin on this see The electronic library and the end of the book in Robin Derricourt, Ideas into books, Ringwood, Vic., Penguin, 1996, p. 221-225. Each section in this book purports to be a letter of reply to an author from his publisher on a area concerning the publication process.


9  While my mind springs especially to French ones such as Métal hurlant and RanXerox. Hell baby is another personal favorite of mine from the more accessible titles.


10  Roger Sabin, Comics, comix & graphic novels: a history of comic art, London, Phaidon, 1996.


11  Manhwa: world of Korean comics: 2003 sampler / [selection & text by Dubo CMC], Seoul, Korea Cultural & Contents Agency, 2003. Chiefly ill.


12  Bartkowiak’s forum book art, 21. Ausg., 2003/2004, 563 p. The text is in English and German. See also his informative website at http://www.forumbookart.com/ , including links to such things as the “International Tea Session of the Edible Book”.




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