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A sight to give you nightmares: inside the Frankfurt Book Fair (photo by Arielinson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Frankfurt Book Fair has been running for so many years, that a standard greeting when you meet someone is “how many Frankfurts have you been to?”, with a response such as “This is my 20th Frankfurt”. I’d love to say that attending more Frankfurts improves you in some way, but I don’t think it does. Incidentally, it is remarkable how the Book Fair is simply abbreviated to “Frankfurt”, to publishing colleagues, and they know exactly what you mean.

Every Frankfurt Book Fair is similar, in these respects:

  • Hotel prices typically double for the week of the Book Fair, compared to usual Frankfurt prices. Alternatively, you can find a room 25km from the event, which isn’t cheap either.
  • Every year there is a vast queue at the entrance on the first morning, and it takes up to 30 minutes to get through the ticket barriers.
  • Every day of the Fair at around 5pm an alcoholic haze descends over the halls, as many stands start providing free beer and wine.
  • Outside of the Fair, many hotels are full of meetings held by publishers to take advantage of all the visitors to the Fair, without the bother of attending the show itself.
  • If you have a stand, you pay extra for everything, including a waste bin.
  • Meetings are booked every half an hour. Assuming all your meetings are in the same hall, you require 5-7 minutes to get to the next meeting. If you allow for five minutes for exchanging niceties, you are then left with 20 minutes for your meeting. In that time, you have to remember what you were talking about last time, and make notes from the current meeting. If you try to book meetings in more than one hall, you will regret it – it can take 20 minutes or more to get to another hall, before you find the relevant stand.
  • To make the most of the Fair, you move from meetings during the day, to early drinks at a local hotel, to a separate dinner, and very keen attendees have been known to have breakfast meetings and even to go to two dinners in one evening.
  • There is a lot of one-upmanship at the Fair. I remember the Dorling Kindersley stand at Frankfurt, when DK was in its prime, being completely enclosed. All the Fair meeting slots had been booked in advance, so there was no point in stopping at the stand in the hope of meeting someone. Attendees tell you proudly “I’ve got 25 meetings booked”, something I’ve only managed if I include chatting to the cloakroom attendant and the security guards as separate meetings.

Was this year different in any way? It’s hard to think of many changes, but here are a few:

  • There was wi-fi across the entire hall. In earlier years, wi-fi for visitors was only available in restricted zones (a bit like smoking zones – you felt vaguely guilty about standing in a wifi zone).
  • As always, the catering was abysmal. On the first day, the only catering outlet in hall 4.2 reported their coffee machine was out of action.
  • Mercifully, the deposit system for glasses, cups and saucers seemed to have ended. But I discovered one of the halls, still operating a crazy deposit scheme, by which you paid a 50c deposit for every cup or glass. You are given a plastic token which is exchanged for money when you return the object. This doubles the number of transactions required, and slows everything down. When you come home you discover several of these tokens in your pocket.
  • This year officially there were 93,000 trade visitors, and 4,000 exhibitors. This felt to me like a considerable reduction on earlier years.

One way to make the Book Fair a little more human is to visit the city itself, which is only a few hundred metres from the Book Fair, but like a different world. In past years I have used a few spare hours to see the Städel Art Gallery, to visit the Frankfurt Opera, or, this year, to see the excellent Museum of Frankfurt.

Despite all the drawbacks, the Frankfurt Book Fair is the most essential event of the year in the academic publishing calendar. There are more societies and publishers than any other show, at least in Europe. So I will be one of the sad types who walks around telling everyone this is my 20th, or 21st, or 22nd Frankfurt. To be honest, I’ve lost count. And then I’ll find a few more of those annoying deposit tokens …