Frankfurt Book Fair: China, Google and Mandela steal show
- Branko Brkic
- 15 Oct 2009 05:09 (South Africa)
While China and Google push their not-insubstantial heft around the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, Madiba’s diaries make cash-strapped publishers salivate.
The 61st annual Frankfurt Book Fair kicked off in the eponymous German city on Wednesday, with guest of honour China watching closely to ensure it was caused no further offense. A pre-fair symposium in mid-September had initially seen Beijing protest the inclusion on the programme of two “dissident” Chinese writers, who were quickly dumped from the list, but who were later reinstated following a German uproar – causing members of the Chinese delegation to walk out.
In the days leading up to the event, a low-level war of words erupted between the hosts of the world’s largest book fair and their most honoured guests. China’s ambassador to Germany, Wu Hongbo, called Germany’s action “unacceptable”, adding it was “not an expression of respect for their Chinese partners.”
Herbert Wiesner, head of the German chapter of the writer's defence organisation PEN, snapped back: “Chinese organisers have mistaken themselves for state censors. It’s frightening.”
The diplomatic incident went no further, however. At the opening ceremony on Tuesday night, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese vice-president Xi Jimping walked into the lavish hall side by side. Fair director Jurgen Boos, while condemning restrictions on freedom of speech and promising to engage his guests on “unpleasant subjects”, pointed out that China – as the homeland of both print and paper – is a logical partner for any book fair.
With 6,900 exhibitors from 100 countries expected to gather in Frankfurt until Sunday, this year’s fair has 400 fewer exhibitors than last year’s. The effect of the recession on the publishing industry is evident – a number of large US firms have stayed away, and the UK editorial presence in stalls is much reduced. According to French newswire AFP, many participants have said they couldn’t remember the last time that Frankfurt's major hotels still had rooms available a few days before the fair’s opening.
What the delegates who should have occupied those rooms will be missing, aside from possible further altercations with the Chinese, is a series of debates and focus groups on electronic publishing. Amazon has recently made its e-book reader, Kindle, available to a hundred countries outside the US (including South Africa), and the fair will attempt to unpack how such developments could change the industry going forward.
Observes AFP: “[Half] of the sector professionals questioned by fair organisers estimated that digital book sales in 2018 would be greater than those of paper-based copies.”
Another company lining up to cash in on the sea-change is of course Google. On Thursday, the web search giant announced at the fair that it plans to launch an online store to deliver e-books to any device with a browser – including PCs, laptops, netbooks and smartphones. Google Editions, as the venture is to be called, will not be based around a dedicated e-reader of any kind, and the company’s intention to offer around 500,000 books at launch is a serious threat to the likes of Kindle and Sony’s Reader.
Like China, Google arrived at the fair under a cloud of controversy. On Saturday, Merkel railed against the search giant’s scheme to digitise millions of books from the world’s leading libraries. “We reject the scanning in of books without any copyright protection – like Google is doing,” said the German chancellor. “The government places a lot of weight on this position on copyrights to protect writers in Germany.”
Slightly less controversial than both China and Google is South Africa’s favourite son, Nelson Mandela. The former president’s personal dairies have been dubbed “book of the fair”. Bidding for the diaries is already underway – whoever wins the rights battle, presided over by Jonny Geller of the Curtis Brown literary agency, is expected to be the proud owner of a brand-new international bestseller.
By Kevin Bloom