Frankfurt Book Fair

Through Covid-19 and war: the story of Frankfurt comeback


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This year’s 74th Frankfurt Book Fair has become one of the most anticipated events for publishers, authors and German readers, particularly due to two years of lockdown and restrictions. Compared to the festival in 2021 it became twice as big but still didn’t reach its former scale: at the beginning of summer the organisers expected four thousand participants, and that’s exactly how many guests there were in autumn. 

The notions of “social distancing”, “post-Soviet countries” and “back to normalcy” almost disappeared from the general discourse as well as the big and red russian stand. Yet, if for some “back” and “normalcy” were about the economic figures, for many countries those are still impossible due to russian invasion in Ukraine and its implications, while China and other Asian countries had to delay their return to international event due to strict quarantine restrictions being back in place. 

“This is my 28th Frankfurt Book Fair. In relation to the Fair in 2020-2021 it was revived, it got rebooted. Yet, there is no comparison between this year and 2019, for now we live in a completely different world,” stated Piero Attanasio, the Head of European Book Fairs’ Network Aldus Up and Head of public affairs and R&D programs of the Italian Publishers Association.

Frankfurt Book Fair has always attempted to represent as many participants as possible following the principle that this year has been defined as “Words connect worlds”. It is the diversity, not the participation of big businesses and markets that adds political and cultural value to the event. 


So, the presence of long-planned Guest of Honour, Spain, didn’t prevent the appearance of a separate focus program dedicated to Ukraine; participation of big international publishing and media companies does not distract any attention from young and niche publishers that can always participate in grant and educational programs from the fair. 

Nevertheless, the decrease in the number of participants seemed to bother the organisers. “We are not entitled to choose who’s going to be presented – the left or the right – as long as what they publish is not against the law. We are proud of our diversity,” mentions Peter Kraus vom Cleff, the President of the Federation of European Publishers (FEP). On the other hand, the decision about russian non-participating was quite conscious. 


“180 000 participants from more than 100 countries have visited the 74th Frankfurter Buchmesse. Despite the international character of the fair, some exhibitors were missing: for instance, due to current travel restrictions there was no big China stand. Hence, one of the biggest book markets wasn’t present at Frankfurt. There was no russian stand either. Since russian book institute is very close to russian government, we decided not to have them among our exhibitors. These are the geopolitical changes that inevitably impact the Fair,” says Juergen Boos, the Director of Frankfurter Buchmesse. 

The world after Covid: war, threatened diversity and debut impossibility

Many countries have got back to “normalcy” – most of them managed to reach their pre-lockdown figures.  But will they keep them in the face of the war and world paper and energy crises? This is what has been discussed at professional talks at Frankfurt. 

As far back as the last year, when Frankfurt Book Fair was held in a “chamber” format due to quarantine restrictions, it was obvious that big companies, big publishers and distributors with a well-established operation system in particular, as well as digital-platforms, had the highest chance of surviving the covid. It was also them who ensured the field stability, yet smaller players as well as smaller markets had to fight for their existence. 


Postponing the publications, delays in book distributors payments to small and medium business, publishing the titles with the least financial risks have significantly decreased the assortment range. 

According to Michala Čičváková, the Coordinator of International Cooperation of Czech Literary Centre, the last couple years were not the easiest for small and medium publishers and bookstores in the Czech Republic, yet Czech publishers had been preparing for this year’s fair with particular optimism: “We’ve been preparing thoroughly for this season, and we actually entered it having pretty good financial indicators. But the war broke out. It’s like we inhaled but now cannot exhale, because what is waiting for us is much worse than it used to be”. 


“We are witnessing big American and Chinese platforms entering the market – they have a huge impact on the availability of the content. And quite often we can see how particular topics disappear from the agenda, LGBTQ+ for example,” adds Peter Kraus vom Cleff, the President of the Federation of European Publishers.


This tendency is obvious, yet not only important social issues got under threat, but also some young authors. The publishers and authors name the “debut impossibility” as one of the negative consequences of the past couple years. The issues of war, decolonization and liberation from imperial narratives are getting discussed more and more often in the fair’s pavilions. “Europe doesn’t have oil and gas, but Europe has ideas. Our wealth is our intellectual property,” adds FEP President.

New crisis opportunities – assertive existence and flexible presence 

Nevertheless, even in the limitations caused by the pandemic, war and economic crisis some managed to find new opportunities. 


Despite the war about 40 Ukrainian publishers got to Germany and even presented their new titles. Among them there are publishers from Kharkiv whose houses were destroyed by russians. “I don’t have home anymore”, “there are no pictures from my childhood anymore”, “my library is buried beneath the remnants of my house” these are the social media posts that have become common since March. And in autumn these very publishers, agents and authors came to Frankfurt to tell their stories through their books.

Notwithstanding the war Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the book community online, the first lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska attended a series of events in person, and the Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko announced the intention of Ukraine to become the Guest of Honour of the Frankfurt Book Fair. And the presence of the paramedic Julia Paevska (Tayra) has become an event of particular interest.


The whole 4.0 pavilion was filled with Ukrainian flags, translations from Ukrainian, blue and yellow leaflets and posters, and the organisers of the Fair have raised the Ukrainian flag over the Messe alongside the German one. 


Read more about Ukraine’s participation in Victoria Feshchuk’s article 

In spite of the pandemic and crisis. The French stand was one of the biggest last year. “Even German publishers in 2020 said that it was not the German book fair, it seemed more like a French one! Everyone came to visit the French stand, the meetings took half an hour or even an hour, not 15 minutes as it used to be. And that gave wonderful results,” shares Christine Karavias, the representative of BIEF, the International Bureau of French Publishers. If earlier such big publishers as Gallimard or Albin Michel had their own individual stands, this year they joined the collective French stand that took 750 square metres and housed over 200 publishers.

Italy showed exceptional resilience. It managed to reach its 2019 sales even back in 2020, and by 2021 their publishing market could boast a 16% increase in sales as compared to 2019. 

Read about how other countries dealt with the pandemics here 


Also, during the lockdown and other quarantine restrictions, the segment of academic books grew. The reason is that during remote learning, students were very dependent on educational materials and books as such.

The war in Ukraine has influenced publishing all over the world, mostly due to the energy crisis. As any industry, publishing which still heavily relies on paper prices, has suffered a lot, since paper production is extremely energy-consuming.  

“Italy has tried to refuse from buying russian gas, we’ve cut down our purchase by 80%, but gas prices have sky-rocketed,” mentions Piero Attanasio. “This crisis has caught us right when the publishing was dealing with the paper deficit. Many factories specialised at producing paper for publishing purposes had been shifting more and more often to producing packaging. Prices for paper almost doubled,” he adds. Thus, competing with big businesses such as Amazon gets harder. 

This competition is less tangible for the publishers from Eastern Europe, but Western Europe keeps seeing this competition as a threat. For example, North American businesses sometimes cannot even buy the aforementioned packaging – Amazon empties the warehouses with cardboard products, leaving the small and medium businesses not only without printing paper, but even without the cardboard. 

Digital publishing, though still growing, cannot keep up with the price growth for printed books that is still more popular among readers. 

The Guest of Honour was Spain, Slovenia and Italy are next in line

The status of Frankfurt Book Fair Guest of Honour has passed this year from Canada to Spain. What is more, Canada is the only country that has been holding this status over two years – not the best ones, but still – 2020-2021. Spain, on the other hand, got luckier. And this year it presented the program under the motto “Creatividad desbordante / Spilling Creativity”, taking 2000 square metres of the Guest of Honour pavilion.

That was not the first time Spain was the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt. The first time it happened was in 1991. Spanish literature as well as Spain itself has changed ever since. Among Spanish celebrities attending Frankfurt there were the royal family, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte, writer Irene Vallejo, writer and essayist Antonio Muñoz Molina, Spanish journalist and writer Rosa Montero, and writer and poet Fernando Aramburu. 

In three years that Spain has been preparing for its participation, it has managed to present over 450 translations into German, and more than 320 Spanish exhibitors presented their editions. Just as in previous years, Spain was represented by the Spanish Association of Publishers Guilds (FGEE), as well as associations of particular autonomous communities such as Basque Country, Balearic Islands, Land of Valencia, Galicia, Catalonia, Asturias, and Andalusia. 

The main focus of representation was on linguistic and thus cultural diversity, but on the other hand it was aimed at promotion of the Spanish language as a bridge to Latin America. Special attention was paid to female voices of Spain that spoke not only from the pages of the books, but also were actively present on the professional stage – as actresses, illustrators and literary agents. Overall, the Spanish delegation consisted of 200 people.


Also read: Spanish-speaking world: over half a billion readers and half a billion euros of European export 


At the end of the fair Spain passed the baton to Slovenia, one of the smallest participant-countries that dared to take the status of the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt. Over the years of pandemic, publishers have significantly decreased long-run planning – if earlier the list of Guests of Honour was known 3-4 years ahead of the festival, now we only know the Guests for the next 2 years – Slovenia (2023) and Italy (2024).

Slovenia began preparation back in 2015-2016 with the establishing the translation “infrastructure”: via networking, business trips, grant support for authors attending literary festivals and for translation itself. According to the Slovenian Book Agency, there were 148 translations made in 2015-2016. Over the last three years has translated about 200 titles, but faced the problem of a translator shortage. 


“The main point of participating as a Guest of Honour is to stabilise those indicators and to set the trend. To my mind, it must not end with this project, on the contrary, this is just the beginning. And if we cannot reach this target, that means we just wasted the money,” says Miha Kovač, program director of the Slovenian program at Frankfurt Book Fair 2023. Slovenia’s budget for their Guest of Honour program is EUR 4.2 mln (for comparison, Georgia spent over EUR 6 mln in 2016). 

The newly elected Chairwoman of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association Tamar Lebanidze told us about the results of such a big investment: “Country’s visibility has increased. But for such a project I would advise the publishers to choose their partners wisely and avoid fraudsters. I mean those that get the grant for translating the book and then publish it but instead of a separate circulation they print on demand, i.e. publish only several copies of the claimed circulation”. 

Translation as transformation and #BookTok as a new marketing trend

Translation has always been the central topic of Frankfurt, and this year it’s become one of focus themes with the motto “Translate. Transfer. Transform”. This program covered not only the “translators” events but also discussed translation in a broader sense – translation of literature into non-bookish formats, adaptations and screen adaptations.


One of the elements of “Transfer” was a separate BookTok-program.


#BookTok is a hashtag used to mark literary and bookish videos on TikTok, such as book recommendations, literary content, video-memes on themes related to literature and emotions while reading.

The trend started in late 2020 and got 84 bln views, book news included but not limited to. #BookTok has managed to bring back the titles that were published a decade ago and made them bestsellers (for example, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller released in 2011).


#BookTok has replaced Bookstagram, and it got #BookTok its own stage where booktokers held discussions and exchanged their experience. 


Publishers already see the perspective for TikTok marketing, especially taking into account that reading has lost its positions and the main audience of the app is young adults and teens. 

Who in Europe reads less? 

Reading dynamics is something even Frankfurt can’t boast of. So, 6 mln of Germans experience difficulties with reading. One in 5 has trouble understanding texts. Almost every European country can state the decrease in the numbers of readers and buyers. And despite satisfactory market figures in the long run the situation is pretty obvious – we are losing the readers. 

One of the first events at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair was the discussion “A cornerstone towards comprehensive data on European reading habits”. It was combined with the presentation of ERICS, the new methodology for studying reading that suggests a common approach for everyone. This framework is already applied in Italy, Spain and Norway. The reason is that all researches and target groups in European studies significantly differ from one another, thus from a scientific point of view comparing readers and reading habits is incorrect, even if this data is published by Eurostat.

“The data in comparison is essential for reading promotion and developing corresponding state policies,” says Christoph Bläsi, co-author of the methodology and Professor of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

Thus, we’ll get the answer to the question who reads and how after the next round of research if the basic issues of the field are taken into account by the corresponding European institutions. 


Right now, we can see how Europe and the world are dealing with new challenges. This will require significant efforts form the governments, publishers, distributors, authors, literary agents, booktokers and regular readers.

The review is prepared with the support from Goethe-Institut in Ukraine