‘Special edition’ of Frankfurt Book Fair to go ahead despite virus

With a heritage that dates back to the invention of the printing press 500 years ago in nearby Mainz, the Frankfurt Book Fair is determined to defy coronavirus, even if it means a mostly virtual event without many of the world’s biggest publishing houses.

“This year, it’s more important than ever that Frankfurter Buchmesse takes place,” said Juergen Boos, the book fair’s director.

As one of the first big trade shows scheduled to go ahead since the start of the pandemic, October’s Frankfurt Book Fair could become a template for an events industry that has been devastated by coronavirus.

Almost 3,000 trade fairs around the world have been cancelled or postponed due to crippling lockdowns and travel restrictions, according to M+A, a German trade publication. Harald Kötter, managing director of the Association of the German Trade Fair Industry, said Frankfurt’s decision to press ahead was “an important milestone”.

Germany has been one of the few countries that has handled the pandemic relatively well. While it has more than 200,000 infections, the death toll of 9,200 people is well below the likes of the UK, where 45,000 people have died.

Although many restrictions on public life have been lifted in Germany, large events remained banned until the end of October, with Munich’s Octoberfest beer festival one of the most prominent victims. Trade fairs are exempt from that ban.

But the 2020 Frankfurt book fair will be a scaled backed affair. This year, it will be a mixture of business meetings on the fairground, a literature festival in downtown Frankfurt for the general audience and virtual events online.

Mr Boos has billed this year’s event a “special edition”, but not everyone is convinced.

Among the global heavyweights that have pulled out are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and SpringerNature as well as Germany’s four largest general-interest publishers: Random House Deutschland, Bonnier, Holtzbrinck and Bastei Lübbe.

Alexander Lorbeer, Holtzbrinck managing director, said he decided not to take part “out of responsibility for the health of our employees, authors and guests”.

Canada, which was supposed to be guest of honour at this year’s book fair, has postponed its physical presence until 2021.

Medical exerts say the caution seems merited. “Every international trade fair where many visitors are in close contact is potentially a superspreader event,” said Alexander Kekulé, a University of Halle virology professor.

The risk of contagion is particularly high when people meet in confined and poorly ventilated places. “You either have to impose . . . restrictions on such face-to-face meetings during the fair, or you test every visitor,” he said.

The organisers’ plan for social distancing measures, the preregistration of visitors and a self-assessment of health may not be enough to assuage concerns. “This didn’t convince us,” Christian Schumacher-Gebler, chief executive of Bonnier Media Deutschland, told Buchreport, a trade journal.

Yet abandoning the fair altogether could undermine its long-term future, said Tom Kraushaar, managing director of German publisher Klett-Cotta. “Frankfurt Book Fair is an important forum where people from many different parts of public life meet and discuss pressing issues of our time,” he said.

Based on current rules, about 20,000 visitors will have access to the fairground at a time, compared with up to 100,000 on the busiest days of recent years. Mr Boos said that while he expected about one-third of last year’s 7,400 exhibitors, he was “confident that the fair will be a success”.

He argues that the key business of the fair — the buying and selling of translation rights — can still take place. After the cancellation of a host of events including the London Book Fair and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair “there was an urgent need to do business again,” he added.

Yet even those who plan to go know it will not be business as usual. “Normally, I have 40 meetings during the Frankfurt Book Fair. This time around, it might be just two or three,” said Joachim Unseld, head of publisher Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt.

One thing that fair veterans will miss are the boozy evening receptions that are often followed by late-night drinks at the hotel bar. “This is where you meet old friends, make new business partners and pick up new ideas,” said Mr Unseld. “Sadly, this won’t happen in 2020.”