Frankfurt Book Fair Remains Publishing Mecca

If the term "marketplace of ideas" were taken to refer to a specific place, that place might just be the Frankfurt Book Fair. Held annually, the fair reflects the prevailing currents of cultural influence around the world.

Frankfurt is home to the world's biggest book fair and the premier market for international publishing rights. Some 80 percent of all such deals are concluded here, experts estimate.

Electronic publishing was again a main focus at this year's fair, which concluded Monday. On the whole, the book trade remains rapturous in its enthusiasm for new media and their market potential, even though individual firms vary widely in their level of new media activity, and some big ones have pulled out of the CD-ROM market for now.

"We're not betraying Gutenberg, we're widening his galaxy," is how Proska Draskoczy, head of the multimedia division at the Kossuth publishing house in Budapest answers criticizm that electronic publishing doesn't create "real books." This does not mean she's giving up on books, though. "The issue is appropriate form," Ms. Draskoczy remarked during a panel discussion at the fair, adding that when a book is the right format for a certain publication, her firm will publish it as a book.

And the book people here clearly do not see electronic publishing as something just for giants serving the vast English-speaking (and English-learning) market. Operating in a country of 10 million, where the national language is a difficult, non-Indo-European tongue, Kossuth is nonetheless making a go of new media, with offerings such as a guide to Hungary's birds and butterflies on CD-ROM and a program on basic commercial correspondence in six languages.

CD-ROM is "a medium of the future, perhaps not the medium," Draskoczy says.

"We are in the midst of a third reading revolution," says Giuseppe Vitiello, special adviser to the Directorate of Education, Culture, and Sport of the Council of Europe. The first revolution was Gutenberg's; the second came in the 18th century, when people began to read less intensively and more extensively - and more superficially. "The scholars complain, 'We have no more marginal notations' to consider when they research the libraries of historical figures," he adds. In the third revolution, "We are reading off the screen, we are reading interactively."

This was a boom year for the fair itself, which had 40 percent more booth space than last year, owing to extensive reconstruction of the exhibition halls. More than 9,200 publishers from 110 countries were represented.

Publishers generally were upbeat about the state of the world book trade: a 24.3 percent increase from 1991 to 1995, from $64.3 billion to $80 billion, according to figures from Euromonitor, a market analysis firm.

The industry is giving some mixed signals, however - perhaps unsurprisingly, given its "revolutionary" state. Book sales in Germany were up 2.7 percent last year over the year before. German officials ascribe this to their system of fixed prices, which they say helps support an abundance and diversity in both bookshops themselves and the titles they can supply. Chancellor Kohl defended fixed book prices in his speech opening the fair.

British booksellers, however, abandoned their price-fixing program last year, and German officials sharply criticized them for this and noted that Britain was one of the few soft spots in a strong global market.

The fastest-growing book market, though, as reported at the fair, was the United States, which has had no fixed-price system but has been going through a wrenching transition as independent bookstores have folded before strong competition from Barnes & Noble and other megastores.

And finally, call it the revolution that hasn't quite happened yet. Book sales over the Internet are supposed to be one of the strong new trends in the industry. "Virtual bookstores" such as amazon.com are making a name for themselves.

But an informal survey at the Frankfurt Book Fair suggests that even some of the most technologically hip publishers are going a little slowly on Internet sales.

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