Speaking out at the Frankfurt Book Fair

by Kelvin Smith

Some thoughts at this time of year when publishers are getting ready to travel to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s easy-peasy. You plan your appointments by email or messaging; send your display and sample copies by courier; pop on a cheap flight; pay with your debit or credit card; use your own phone to keep in touch around the world. Most communication will be in English.

Once upon a time it wasn’t like this. In the early 1970s many of us drove to Germany (by various favourite routes through France, Belgium, Netherlands), using multiple currencies (always cash); as we crossed borders our passports would be needed of course, but also our boxes of books, proofs, catalogues and display materials might be examined or impounded until duty was paid. For a week or more we were mostly out of touch with office and home. We used what languages we had to talk to publishers and booksellers from around the world.

All agreements that included royalties, co-publication, book sales were fraught with the difficulties of operating under different legal and commercial systems; we needed to know about shipping and the documents that were required to make sure that film, sheets or finished books arrived at their destination. Even lowly editorial or sales staff had to understand some of the complexity of international documentation and payment methods.

These days British publishers seem blissfully unaware that such issues will again have an effect on their business if they continue to follow the UK government blindly towards the departure gate from the European Union, and Brexit also puts into question the many global agreements included under our membership of the EU. There is demonstrable concern about intellectual property, and the European media empires that control much of ‘British’ publishing must certainly have already developed contingency plan on this front that may see publishing, like banking, pharmaceuticals, IT, games and the music industries, move jobs and activities into other EU countries.

The headlines today are all about the success of British publishers in export markets, but this may be a chimera. It’s about time that more people in publishing spoke out, and loudly, against the madness that is Brexit. The Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017 would be a good time to start.