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A sober Frankfurt

19 October 2009

No-one expected Frankfurt to be a ball this year. Everyone knew that the big parties were cancelled - no more trying to crash the big Bertelsmann extravaganza and none of the other opulent parties of old. It's still a shock to find that it was so very subdued.

The American contingent was considerably slimmed down. Neither Random House nor Simon & Schuster sent any editors, a sign of belt-tightening which may have sent an even starker message of cut-backs than was really intended. Some British houses cut back on editors too, with the general effect that there were plenty of people selling rights, including a great many subsidiary rights people and agents, but not many people to sell to.

But perhaps this is to have an exaggeratedly Anglo-Saxon view of the publishing world. For the many publishing people from countries other than the US and the UK, business went on much as usual. It's always been difficult to sell books from these countries to the Brits and Americans because English language publishers are not much interested in what is going on elsewhere. There's no shortage of books being written in English and these don't carry the high cost of translation.

And it was these cutbacks which were causing the change. Publishers didn't want their editors to buy books, so why send them to Frankfurt? Deals could be concluded by email before and after the Fair and no publishing management wanted to get into the kind of bidding war over 'the book of the Fair' which used to characterise Frankfurt in the old days. Having trimmed their lists and spread out the books they have under contract into future years, publishers want to sit tight, contain costs and wait out the recession.

Much depends on Christmas, that annual orgy of book-buying which drives a large proportion of sales in the West. Last Christmas was devastated in the UK by the fallout from Woolworths closing-down, and in the US there has been a steeper decline in book purchasing. But a good Christmas, in which gift purchasers turned back to books as good but not-too-expensive gifts, could make a big difference. Many consumers do feel that the end of the recession is in sight, but that they'd still better be careful, so books could do well as relatively inexpensive gifts.

But even when the book business comes out of this recession it's still going to be a different world. Publishers will rebuild their lists cautiously, with an emphasis on the tried and tested, and what is already bestselling. Unpublished authors will continue to think hard about self-publishing. And digitisation and the growth in e-books may yet change the market so radically that we are really talking about a whole new ball-game.