A new chapter: Frankfurt Book Fair to go ahead in October with semi-digital programme

Sheikh Zayed Book Award has already confirmed it will take part in the virtual literary event

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 13: People walk over the fairground of the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) on October 13, 2018 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Bongarts/Getty Images)
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The world's biggest book fair has not been cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic, but it is rethinking the way things are done.

Frankfurter Buchmesse, known as the Frankfurt Book Fair, has confirmed it will go ahead with this year’s event on its planned dates, from Wednesday, October 14, to Sunday, October 18.

To accommodate possible travel restrictions due to the coronavirus, the fair will launch a largely digital programme allowing guests – ranging from authors to publishers – to have keynote sessions and presentations streamed to audiences on the ground.

Those physically attending should expect a redesigned floor plan with the fair presently consulting with health authorities to ensure the safety of delegates and public.

This includes contactless admission upon registration, a crowd cap depending on the amount of floor space used, and ensuring thousands of book stands and width of walkways are in line with government social-distancing guidelines.

When it comes to the major stages, typically home to high-profile keynote sessions with hundreds in attendance, the fair is examining whether to migrate these events online or conduct them indoors with safety precautions.

Good news in horror year for the industry

The fair’s return, announced on Wednesday, May 27, by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, is much needed good news for an international publishing industry devastated by the pandemic.

Held throughout the year in various countries across the globe, including Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, international book fairs are key trade events for authors and publishers to showcase their work and strike various deals ranging from copyright and digital publishing to translation.

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 13:  A general view at the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) on October 13, 2017 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The 2017 fair, which is among the world's largest book fairs, will be open to the public from October 11-15.  (Photo by Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images)
The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world's largest book fair. Getty Images

This year saw a slew of important book fairs, including the London Book Fair (March 10-12), Paris Book Fair (March 20-23), Bologna Children’s Book Fair (April 12-15) and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (April 15-21), cancelling events due to Covid-19.

“This year, it is more important than ever that Frankfurter Buchmesse takes place,” stated fair director Juergen Boos. “We are putting a spotlight on our authors, industry and trends. Because of the pandemic, Frankfurter Buchmesse 2020 will be a special edition – an on-site programme combined with a forward-looking digital offer.”

Will UAE organisations take part?

One organisation looking forward to taking up the digital option is the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. Run by the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT Abu Dhabi), the award is one of a healthy contingent of UAE publishing bodies that normally takes part in the Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Others include the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the Sharjah Book Authority and publisher Kalimat.

The Department of Culture and Tourism pavilion at Frankfurt Book Fair. Picture by Saeed Saeed.
The Department of Culture and Tourism pavilion at Frankfurt Book Fair. Picture by Saeed Saeed.

Speaking to The National, Sheikh Zayed Book Award's general secretary Dr Ali bin Tamim confirmed the organisation's digital attendance.

“We will be part of Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2020 virtual programme,” he said. “The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is a long-time partner of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Last year, we had full programme at the fair ground with three well-attended sessions. We look forward to continuing this partnership.”

Ahmed Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, whose massive white pavilion at the fairground hosts a number of the emirate’s literary organisations including the Sharjah International Book Fair and Sharjah Publishing City, said a decision on whether to participate will be made in the near future.

Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, visited the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018.  Sharjah Media Corporation
Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, visited the in Frankfurt Book Fair 2018. Sharjah Media Corporation

“We are delighted to learn about Frankfurter Buchmesse’s decision to go ahead with the 2020 edition,” he said.

“Our emirate has been a major player at the book fair for more than two decades, connecting the UAE’s and Arab region’s publishing professionals with their German and European counterparts. The Sharjah Book Authority is currently evaluating the situation; we will reach a decision soon about our participation this year."

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair were not available for comment.

The virtual book fair: an unfolding tale

While the Frankfurter Buchmesse’s digital stream could prove to be a popular option for delegates this year, it's very inclusion in this year’s event marks a compromise by the fair’s director.

Speaking in the event’s online newsletter, The Frankfurt Bookmark, in March, Boos said he was not convinced that a virtual format would achieve the same impact as a physically staged event.

“Book fairs celebrate the industry itself. They also play a significant role economically, providing a venue for various activities – from customer acquisition and business development to co-operative agreements, from product presentations and trendspotting to recruiting and further education,” he said.

“All these business and networking options thrive on face-to-face interactions. In my opinion, approaching them virtually is not something we can realistically do in the foreseeable future.”

But with Frankfurter Buchmesse’s decision to go ahead with a large digital programme, the idea of virtual fair is not a closed book after all.