Bookselling This Week recently reached out to several ABA member booksellers who attended the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany earlier this month. Jeff Deutsch, director of Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, attended the fair, as did three booksellers who received the 2018 Bookselling Without Borders scholarship founded by Europa Editions, which sends American booksellers to international book fairs around the world. Dispatches from these three booksellers will appear in a future issue of BTW. Here is Deutsch’s accounting of his trip.
Kenko, in the marvelous Tsurezuregusa, tells us, “It wakes you up to take a journey for a while, wherever it may be…In such a place, you really notice everything.” When that journey is to the oldest and largest book fair in the world, the awakening is profound.
My trip out to Germany was a gift from the Seminary Co-op’s board of directors, and it was important to them that I did not feel the need to file reports, schedule meetings, or otherwise plow through my regular to-do list. They were merely adamant that I view the time itself — the days spent exploring the millions of square footage devoted to the business of books — as a specific type of gift. Thus, the great privilege in attending my first Frankfurt Book Fair was partially the privilege in attending without official business.
Officially, the fair attracts about 7,500 exhibitors from over 100 countries. Strolling the floors and attending the 4,000 events are more than 285,000 visitors, around 10,000 journalists, and 2,400 bloggers. The grounds are the size of five Javits Centers. These are unfathomable numbers.
Speaking of unfathomable numbers, as frontlist buyers at the Co-op, we look at nearly 25,000 new releases every year, making decisions based on a formula that accounts for knowledge, wisdom, intuition, taste, and a fair bit of prophecy. Nearly 300,000 books were published last year, according to UNESCO. Such volume, mixed with the humbling and inspiring personal investment in the products themselves — years of research, style honed over decades — makes for such an unlikely business.
One of the virtues of my having no official business was the ability to browse the aisles in a way our readers browse our stacks. Booksellers know the value of serendipity and discovery well — our work, after all, is to create experiences predicated upon unforeseen and unexpected delights.
I saw colleagues from major presses, small presses, and university presses enthusiastically selling their exceptional catalogs. I have been at that table hundreds of times, listening to our wonderful, passionate publishers and publisher representatives effuse about their latest books. Yet something about observing the conversation in this new context filled me with such warmth for all of us, we unlikely, impractical, ruggedly idealistic proselytizers on behalf of the book.
They are so varied, these publishers, not in passion, but in purpose and size.
I witnessed the commitment of the university presses to works that endure: the University of Chicago Press, Princeton University Press, and Columbia University Press, alongside Fordham, Stanford, and NYU, all bringing serious books to scholars and to general readers alike.
I witnessed the commitment of the small houses to the voices that are too important to be drowned out by the larger din: the New Press, Coach House, Graywolf, Shambhala, Europa Editions, and Seagull Books. They know how to get booksellers excited about books that many readers will only discover by way of our excitement.
I witnessed the commitment of the larger presses and agents, publishing work with both mass appeal and decidedly niche appeal, helping drive the mainstream literary conversations: Gallimard, Suhrkamp Verlag, Penguin Random House, Norton, and the Wylie Agency. They elevate the national conversation, often competing with cultural forces that are trying to speak to our basest instincts.
But these publishers of varied size and purpose all had something important in common, with each other and with us as booksellers: they all go book by book, giving individual attention to the immense work that goes into writing and publishing each of those 300,000 titles.
Michael Reynolds and the visionaries who established Bookselling Without Borders are on to something. It wakes you up to take a journey. While I was not a part of the official program, I had something of a parallel experience — something I shared with Elliott Bay’s Rick Simonson, another independent bookseller traveling to Frankfurt independently — and found the whole thing exhilarating. The conference of the European and International Booksellers’ Federation, wherein the Bookselling Without Borders scholarship winners (Skylight’s Dylan Brown, Square Books’ Lyn Roberts, and the Co-op’s own Adam Sonderberg) held forth on the state of bookselling in the U.S., exemplified the camaraderie and the shared joy and struggles international booksellers bear. But in the setting of this massive publishing event, it also clarified the role booksellers play in the larger ecosystem of the creation and dissemination of books.
Bookselling Without Borders is a gift to the independent booksellers in the U.S. My hope is that its alumni will bring their insights back home and help spread the news of the world, offering insight and perspective to our already incredible community. Ultimately, bookselling without borders is a mode of learning and exchange in the literary world as much as it is a sponsored trip to an international book fair.
Our business is thriving. It’s not a business of commerce and transaction only, as we all know. Our business is about relationships. We create community, we develop spaces of discovery and escape, and, one by one, we share our passion and enthusiasm in an old-fashioned, delightfully inefficient (300,000 books, one by one), and urgent impulse for reciprocal inspiration. We find those who share our aesthetic judgments and our stylistic ideologies and follow them from cover to cover. And most of all we create the communities that are built around the love of books and the institutions that hold them at their core.
Here is what I needn’t tell my board, as they asked for no reports, but what I can’t help but reflect upon. The book is not dead. Books need booksellers. As a bookseller, I need patience and courage. Booksellers, like great novelists, become universal by dint of their specificity. Being decidedly of a particular place is a profound way to be global. And the readers of any place have a need to understand that place through experiences of elsewhere.