FRANKFURT, WEST GERMANY — IT could be a bookstore browser's dream come true. A hall the size of a jumbo-jet hangar, aisles stretching out straight to the horizon, booth after booth filled with displays of new books. But with 11 halls just like it, the biggest book fair in the world is clearly too big for browsers. The Frankfurt International Book Fair in West Germany is where deals are made. Frankfurt is big in more than just physical size. Begun in 1949, it is now an annual six-day event, which attracts more than 8,000 exhibitors from 89 countries. Buses ferry visitors between five buildings that house more than eight acres of company booths and displays.
From Albania to Zimbabwe and from paper manufacturers to literary agents, most parts of the world and all segments of the publishing industry are represented.
``If you want to be a player in the publishing business, you've got to come to Frankfurt,'' explains Stuart Teacher, a publisher with the Running Press in Philadelphia. ``This is where worldwide contacts are made.''
Only three of the fair's six days are open to the general public. The chief aim is not to sell books to readers but to provide a unique international forum for the publishing industry.
The Frankfurt fair's reputation and size can be attributed to the high volume of inter-publisher business done here. Around small tables in a rabbit warren of exhibition booths, publishers buy and sell licensing agreements with publishers in other countries. A publisher in Great Britain with a best-selling book on gardening, for instance, may sell the rights for an Italian translation to a publisher in Italy.
In addition to publishers selling to each other, companies known as packagers try to sell books to publishers.
Asked what a book packager is, Mr. Teacher demonstrates. He takes a sports book off a display shelf. On its dust jacket is an exciting glossy picture of competing athletes, but inside are only blank pages.
``This book doesn't exist yet, it's just a concept,'' says Teacher. If the concept is well received by enough publishers, then it becomes a book.
These dummy books may have an author ready to write and photos or illustrations. Some though, are simply ideas. All have enticing book covers. Packagers use Frankfurt as an opportunity to float new ideas past potential customers at publishing houses.
``Most books don't recoup their initial investment until the fifth or sixth edition,'' says Ruth Sandys, international sales director for Dorling-Kimbersley, one of the largest English-language packaging companies. The point of dealing with packagers and selling foreign rights to publishers abroad is to try to spread the cost of new books over as many investors as possible.
Of the 60 new titles brought by Dorling-Kimbersley to this year's fair, Ms. Sandys estimates that 50 will become books. But the 10 that don't pass muster will not necessarily be terminated.
``They will probably be reworked and tried again later,'' says Sandys.
The use of this fair as a place for trying out future book ideas, and for building and maintaining international contacts, means that Frankfurt complements rather than competes with other publishing conventions.
``Historically, Frankfurt has been the [publishing] rights fair,'' says Eileen Dengler at a booth representing the American Booksellers Association. The ABA's fair in June performs a different function.
``Our fair is where most of the retail buying takes place,'' says Ms. Dengler. It is also where foreign publishers go to meet people in the United States publishing industry.
Other fairs have staked out specialty niches in the publishing world. The Bologna, Italy, fair in April, for example, is considered a must for anyone involved in children's book publishing.
In addition to the considerable business conducted here, the Frankfurt book fair is also a forum for literary and contemporary political issues.
This year's theme of ``France'' provided an opportunity to showcase French culture and French literature - and to shine the international spotlight on one of West Germany's most important partners within the European Community.
The ``Peace Prize of the German Book Trade'' is handed out annually during the fair. This year the award was given to the Czech writer Vaclav Havel. A personal appearance was blocked by Czechoslovakian authorities who refused to grant Mr. Havel a travel visa.
Continued growth for the foremost meeting place of world publishers seems assured. The 51 companies that couldn't squeeze in this year are looking forward to their own booths in the additional 60,000 square feet of space planned for next year's Frankfurt Book Fair.