Frankfurt Book Fair: tradition carries day

WHEN the first Frankfurt Book Fair convened, the jet age had just begun, television was still in its embryonic stage, and the word fax was a long way from breaking into the lexicon.

Now, 46 years later, communications can travel at hyperspeed, yet some things haven't changed. This year's fair, though wrapped in hype about the fabled construction of an information highway, was still mostly about the printed word.

``A genuine chance of achieving an appropriate professional position is only available to an applicant who is capable of abstract thought. But abstract thought can only be fostered by reading, never by the contemplation or use of a screen,'' says Klaus Saur of the German Book Retailers' Federation.

That's not to say the book fest, which ran from Oct. 5 to Oct. 10, completely ignored the new wave of publishing technology. Electronic publishing received lots of attention.

Computer-generated literature, mainly in the CD-ROM format, made its debut at the fair just seven years ago. This year, the display area of electronic-media marketers more than doubled in comparison with 1993 to about 9,000 square yards, according to fair officials.

But many exhibitors say that no matter how far technology advances, people will always crave the tactile pleasure of thumbing through a paperback or hardcover.

``There will always be books,'' says Karen Wilson of the University of Chicago Press. ``You're not going to see a lot of books put on the Internet because they are too long. And besides, you can't read them [computer books] on the beach, or on the train home from work.''

Despite the electronic media's rapid growth, computer-oriented publishers still accounted for only about 450 of the more than 8,600 exhibitors. Among the more than 700 American firms present were everyone from the big names such as Simon & Schuster and Random House to the comic-book kings Marvel and DC.

And for most, tradition is a strong feature at Frankfurt.

In years right after the war, the difficulties associated with intercontinental travel and long-distance communication meant the Frankfurt fair played an important role in the international exchange of ideas and trends among publishing industry types. It offered an opportunity for instant feedback at a time when mail correspondence would take weeks.

Nowadays, the fax, e-mail, satellite phones, and overnight delivery services are able to instantaneously bridge oceans and keep publishers around the globe in touch. Nevertheless, there's still a need for the annual face-to-face contact that takes place at Frankfurt and other international book fairs, Ms. Wilson says.

``There are some things you simply can't accomplish by fax. The human contact factor is important,'' she says.

The fair is a time for dealmaking. The typical day for participants is full of meetings. Wilson, for example, says she had between 10 and 15 meetings every day to discuss the buying and selling of international rights, as well as about the translation of titles from and into English.

``Our list [of books] would look a lot different if there was no Frankfurt fair,'' she says. ``It is essential for translations.''

Since the collapse of communism, the Frankfurt fair has also promoted contacts between publishers in the West and Central Europe. ``Books bore the secret message of freedom in the old East bloc, and now, where no one is anticipating the information superhighway, they are there as the basis for the transfer of know-how,'' says Gerhard Kurtze, president of the German Book Retailers' Federation. He added that books were ``among the most important components of the societies in the East in their search for a new identity.''

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