Frankfurt Book Fair

Reflections from Frankfurt 2023: The fragility of existence and supporting local markets


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This year’s 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse showed the extent to which the bookfair fair has become a political platform, with the Israeli-Hamas war looming in the background, occasionally becoming the center of the conversation.  This year’s fair also showcased the resilience of the publishing industry, as exhibitor numbers swelled despite market uncertainty. And it also demonstrated the literacy world’s continued support of Ukraine, as well as the desire of Ukrainian publishing professionals to form deeper connections with other local markets, especially those facing similar challenges.


We will talk about this, as well as about the representation of Ukraine and current book publishing discussions below.


Fragile but outspoken

This year’s fair showcased Ukraine’s largest-ever national stand, twice as large as last year’s spanning 200 square meters and featuring 43 publishers, over 500 books (most of them produced despite the war), and dozens of participants in the Ukrainian program. Additionally, there was an international exhibition, and three separate stands for Ukrainian institutions. The stand was organized by the Goethe Institute in Ukraine, the Mystetskyi Arsenal, and the Ukrainian Book Institute, and was made possible via support from both the Frankfurt Book Fair and the German government.


Ukrainians—including authors, illustrators, literary agents, and journalists—were prominently featured in various locations at the fair. These included the international exhibition “When Everything Matters,” the Mystetskyi Arsenal stand, the art books stand overseen by Ist Publishing, the Ukrainian Institute stand, and the aforementioned national stand.


Photo by the Ukrainian Book Institute


“The program of our stand is not only a conversation about Ukraine. This is a conversation about the world in which there is Ukraine, Ukrainian culture… Our professionals have excellent expertise in many aspects of the book publishing market, and we want to share it,” said Yulia Kozlovets, coordinator of the Book Arsenal.


Photo by the Ukrainian Book Institute


Claudia Roth, Commissioner for Culture and the Media of Germany, explained the strategy behind the government’s support for Ukrainian culture during the opening of the Slovenian pavilion. She argued that there are three dimensions or fields in which Russia is attacking Ukraine: the physical war on the territory of Ukraine, a war against Ukrainian culture and identity, and then the “information war” in which it utilizes disinformation and propaganda:


“That’s why it is so important to hear an independent voice of peace and freedom — to hear Ukrainian voice. Because today Ukrainians are fighting for democracy, and this is also our battle,” she said.


The list of Ukrainian public figures and authors who participated included Iryna Tsilyk, Yevhenia Lopata, Maksym Yakovlev, Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, Volodymyr Yermolenko, Oksana Zabuzhko, Anna Novosad, Oleksandr Mykhed, Pavlo Kazarin, Sevgil Musaeva, Svitlana Oslavska, Olesya Ostrovska – Lyuta, Alyona Karavai, Vakhtang Kebuladze, Kateryna Kalytko, Yulia Kozlovets, Pavlo Goldin, Kateryna Shavanova, Tanya Piankova, Ostap Slyvynsky, Kateryna Botanova, and Kyrylo Bezkorovaynyi, among others.


Photo by the Ukrainian Book Institute


The theme of the war’s impact was key: the names of authors murdered by the occupiers (more than 30) were visible, as were the names of writers who are fighting in the ranks of the Armed Forces (more than 80). Writers currently serving in the Armed Forces were both at the events (the aforementioned Oleksandr Mykhed and Pavlo Kazarin, as well as Yaryna Chornohuz, who could not come, but was in the program). Their presence was also notable at the stand’s front table, where there was a screen showing images from a calendar of 53 Ukrainian military writers produced by the Ukrainian literary agency Ovo, which represents many of the writers.


“I believe that literature can also be a weapon. And we know from history that Russia has been investing in literature and in being visible, and getting its voice heard all around the world for many centuries… And that’s why for us, it’s very important that the Ukrainian voices are heard because we have our own story to tell,” explained Vita Ma, Ovo’s founder.


During the events of the Ukrainian program, various questions were asked: “What can a writer do during a war?”, “What can Ukrainians do at a moment of not only existential but also ecological fragility?” etc. It was apparent that there were not always enough foreign visitors at these events, so we were left with another question: “Are our messages understandable to foreign listeners?” Especially considering that there is no one collective concept of “foreign readers,”, but a range of groups — from those who come to stand to ask about Russian dissidents to those who greeted Ukrainians with their best “Glory to Ukraine!”


Also among the events of the program: the announcement of the short list of the Chytomo Award for outstanding achievements in book publishing. The Frankfurt Book Fair itself is a partner of the award, and the winner will receive a separate stand in next year’s fair. The winners will be announced in Kyiv on Nov. 2.


Mystetskyi Arsenal presented its stand with the concept “Presence vs Absence”. From February 2022, they began to collect the works of Ukrainian artists who in their works record and reflect the Russian-Ukrainian war from 2014 to the present. The collected works then became part of the online archive “Ukraine on fire,” as well as the publication “Ukraine on fire”, which was presented at the stand.


Photo by the Ukrainian Book Institute


“Last year, these were mainly questions about the citizens of Ukraine, about how they feel, in what format is the war in Kyiv. This year, there are more questions about art — what is with it now, is it protected,” Nataliia Drapak, manager of the Mystetskyi Arsenal, told Chytomo.


One of the standouts at the art bookstand was an illustrated guide to the crimes of Russian colonialism by Maxim Eristavi. The book was published by Ist publishing in Ukrainian and English: its first print run was sold out in three days during the pre-order phase, so a second English-language print run is currently underway.


Photo from ist publishing Instagram page


“This book started as tweets that became very popular, and which the author later compiled into a publication. This is a very convenient form to talk to a wide audience about Russia’s colonial patterns,” Anastasia Leonova and Kateryna Nosko noted in a conversation with Chytomo.


Emphasis on local markets

Since Frankfurt is primarily a business-oriented event, accordingly, those representations with stronger markets in the financial sense — French-speaking, English-speaking, German-speaking, Spanish-speaking — had greater visibility. And at the same time, this obvious dominance is opposed by this year’s focus of the program on “small markets” — the status of Slovenia’s guest of honor and the holding of the Special Program for Publishers from Ukraine and neighboring countries.


Photo from Niki Theron’s page


The participants were publishers from Ukraine and the following countries: Armenia, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia.


This was the second year the program was held, and participants had the chance to share experiences and analytics about their markets, exchange contacts, and lay the foundations for future collaborations.


“The special programme is not just a perfect opportunity to gain new contacts and meet European publishers, but also a chance to find out more about the current publishing process (including book titles and peculiarity of state institutions functioning) in the countries we’ve never had an opportunity to work with…. It was, of course, a very therapeutic week of friendship and unity, when you realize that you are not alone amidst all these challenges,” explained Bohdana Romantsova of Tempora Publishing House in Kyiv.


The final event of the Ukrainian event at the Ukrainian stand was a duel presentation: a study of the Ukrainian book market by the deputy director for international cooperation from the Ukrainian Book Institute, Olena Odynoka, and a presentation of the English version of Chytomo by the co-founder of Chytomo, Iryna Baturevych. The statistics from Odynoka’s presentation impressed the audience, as they showed that despite the war, forced emigration, and a 50% decrease in the number of published books, the number of active readers in Ukraine actually doubled. At the same time, the number of translations is growing more slowly.


Photo by Victoria Feshchuk


“The stronger the programs to support translations of Ukrainian literature to other local markets will be, the stronger the understanding of the Ukrainian context will be,” said Iryna Baturevych speaking about “Chytomo pics: new books from Ukraine” project.


Rights market: cooperation with Russia and protection of smaller markets

For the most part, literary agents at the fair noted that sales of fiction rights continue to grow, with the demand for “light” and entertaining, i.e., more commercial, literature particularly large.


Despite this, Urpu Strelman , director of the Helsinki Literary Agency, confirms that interest in Ukraine has not faded in Finland.


“In Finland, we sympathize a lot — I think this is our war too, it is another Winter war, and in my opinion, this reflects the opinion of all Finns. So the interest has not faded, on the contrary, it is growing, because published translations have already appeared,” she said.


Photo by Iryna Baturevych


Another piece of good news for Ukraine is that agents are increasingly demarcating Ukraine-Russia copyright zones (and the recent law banning Russian imports has greatly contributed to this). Some even claim to refuse sales of rights in the “Russian worldwide” category. However, one should not be too optimistic: agents continue to work with Russia, and are in no hurry to abandon the clients who want to work with Russia. It was not difficult to find Russian lit agents in the crowd.


Market challenges

COVID seemed to have faded as a topic at the fair, with conversations gravitating toward the challenges posed by the the increase in the price of paper and, accordingly, the prices of books, the development of new promotion tools and the attraction of new readers, in particular teenagers (through Booktok), the confrontation between large online bookstores and publishing houses and small niche publishers.


“Production prices continue to rise. For independent publishers who print mainly translations, this is a significant problem,” Independent German publisher, literary agent and bookshop owner Karla Kutzner noted. “It is also difficult to explain to buyers why the price is such, and why they should buy a book by a little-known author with a colonial background for a higher price, instead of buying a popular German-language author for much less.”


Photo by Frankfurt Buchmesse


The influence of artificial intelligence on the development of the book market was another hot topic.


“We are currently in the middle of a battle for jobs ,” said German journalist Mads Pankow at a panel devoted to the topic.” Yes, there is currently no legal framework that would protect the rights of writers, photographers, illustrators, and copyright holders against AI use of their assets. In numbers: 2,500,000 photos need protection from the Getty images archives alone. At most, the training versions of the AI ​​used information from the Facebook posts of underage users.”


Slovenia: Honeycomb of words


The theme of the pavilion — “Honeycomb of Words” reflects the general theme of the Frankfurt Festival – diversity and multiculturalism.


Photo by Frankfurt Buchmesse


One of the important topics of the Slovenian space was the dichotomy of publications in their native language, Slovenian and in English.


Therefore, one of the important trends of Slovenian authors is self-publishing in English (in translation or in the original) and selling it to wider audiences abroad. This experience, in particular, was shared by the author Zoe Ashwood, who actively sells her books for multilingual audiences through BookTok.


At an event dedicated to the rise in popularity of English-language texts in Europe, Zoe Ashwood noted:


“Of course, you can be very successful without BookTok. There are quite a few authors who are completely successful in general and yet helpless with social media. However, I love this tool — both as an opportunity for direct contact with the reader without the intervention of the publisher, and for promoting books that came out 2-3 years ago, and which the publisher or media would no longer promote – and through the BookTok video, it can unexpectedly take off,” she said.


It’s worth noting that Slovenia, a country with a smaller population (2 million) than any previous FBF Guest of Honor, spent four years preparing for its moment. This preparation included translation workshops, media tours to Slovenia, and the successful negotiation of numerous deals between German and Slovenian publishers.


RELATED: Spotlight on Slovenia at the Frankfurt Book Fair: Exploring innovation and challenges in niche markets


Between 2019 and 2022, over 600 translations of Slovenian works into various languages were published. The design for the 2,300 square meter exhibition hall, themed “Honeycomb of Words” decorated with lace patterns and Slovenian books, was created by Sadar Studio.


The rockstars of the Slovenian presence were Žižek (who drew laughs in his opening speech when he said he found the concept somewhat ‘idiotic,’ as he believed the honeycomb represented systems built by totalitarianism) and the Slovenian illustrators, who were prominently featured in the national hall and drew attention from the international audience.


Their collaborations with the world’s top publishers added to their appeal — internationally well-known books highlighted the names of the Slovenian artists, like Maja Kastelic.


They discussed the challenges faced by markets with lower returns and, during the discussions, shared their journey of becoming a spotlight market alongside Georgia, Greece, Norway, and Finland. Slovenia maintained a realistic strategy in terms of its presence and scale, seeking to avoid comparisons with larger markets.


After hosting over 70 events featuring authors, poets, and intellectuals from Slovenia and the global publishing world, Slovenia traditionally passed the torch to Italy on the last day of the fair, which will be the Guest of Honor in 2025.


Žižek and the Israel-Hamas war


Support for Ukraine at this year’s festival was immediately visible at the entrance to the fair, where the Ukrainian flag was flying, but was not a primary topic of general discussion after the official opening. The focus of attention shifted to the war between Israel and Hamas. The official position of Germany and Frankfurt was to support Israel, which was evident both on the flags displayed in the city and on the slogan on every ATM in the city.


Photo by Frankfurt Buchmesse


Early media coverage of the fair was dominated by two related events: the decision by LitProm, a nonprofit closely associated with the fair (Juergen Boos, the director of Frankfurter Buchmesse, is the organization’s president) to postpone an award ceremony for Palestinian writer Adania Shibli and the opening speech by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.


Žižek drew boos, applause and the occasional interruption as he both condemned Hamas for its “brutal killing spree,” and called for a two-part approach: fighting both antisemitism and for Palestine rights.


“The moment you accept that this is not possible, to fight for both sides [for Palestinian rights and against anti-seminitism] at the same time, you lost your soul,” he told the crowd.


He also argued that the atrocities committed by Hamas, as horrible as they were, still needed to be seen in context.


Photo by Frankfurt Buchmesse


“I unconditionally condemn the Hamas attack on Israelis close to the Gaza border, without any ifs and buts, and I give Israel the right to defend itself and destroy the threat. However, I noticed a strange thing. The moment one mentions the need to analyze the complex background of the situation, one is, as a rule, accused of supporting or justifying Hamas terrorism. Are we aware of how weird this prohibition to analyze, to see the complexity is? In what society does this prohibition belong?” he said.


This approach did not go over well with everyone in the crowd. German politician Uwe Becker, President of the German-Israeli Society and the Anti-Semitism Commissioner of the State of Hesse, where Frankfurt is located, interrupted him twice, and several people left the hall in protest.


Not all conversations concerning the war were so polemic. In particular, at the event between the German-Israeli historian Meron Mendel and the German journalist of Palestinian origin Alena Jabarine, the moderator commented “how good it is that we can sit down together and have a real dialogue,” — despite the fact that the panelists clearly had different perspectives.


There was also a palpable desire to “accept everyone” at the event “Strength. The Language of Politics”, where translators from Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian were present, after which the impression remained that the positions of Ukrainian intellectuals often remain unheard (despite the active advocacy of these positions by Claudia Date).


The question of free speech vs. “cancel culture” was also a recurring theme of the fair. Žižek, never one to shy away from confrontation or controversy, said the decision to cancel Shibli’s award ceremony contradicted the “all the values” of the fair. Novelist Salman Rushdie, who received the prestigious German Peace Prize on the last day of the fair, also took on the topic. He has survived two assassination attempts from Islamic extremists angered by his work, the last one a stabbing in 2022 that left him blind in one eye.


Photo by Frankfurt Buchmesse

“What can we do when freedom of speech is so brutally violated today? We can still do what we’ve always had to do: answer bad speeches with better speeches, counter false narratives with better narratives, answer hate with love, believe that truth can still prevail even in times of lies,” he told the crowd. “We must defend it vigorously and as widely as possible, and yes, we must counter harmful words, otherwise we are not defending free speech at all. Publishers are one of the most important defenders of freedom.”




While Ukraine wasn’t a central topic of this year’s fair, it did appear consistently across different events, talks and conversations, and given the greater number of events and meetings between publishers and agents, Frankfurt was effective.


Given the intensity of the war between Israel and Hamas, it was hard not to conclude that Russian invasion has, for now, taken a back seat for the West. At the same time, neighboring countries are reflecting on their own challenges — in particular, Estonian authors are investigating Soviet trauma, while Croatian authors have not yet stopped writing about the consequences of the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia.


In this context, building international connections is a challenge. At the same time, we should not get tired of talking about Russian colonialism and, in particular, of demonstrating the horizons of culture beyond the borders of war.


Read the report from the Frankfurt Bookfair 2022 here