Paperight at The Frankfurt Book Fair

A week off the plane Paperight’s Content Manager, Tarryn-Anne Anderson, revisits some of the insights learnt at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. 

My first experience of the Frankfurt Book Fair was, from the outset, eventful. What began with impassable language barriers and terrifyingly bad train route choices flowed into a jam-packed few days of exciting conversations, speaker events, bibliophilia, and wine (with not much room for something as unproductive as sleep).

The Messe halls in Frankfurt were, I like to imagine, the publishing industry personified. The book fair is lauded as the who’s-who of publishing discussing the what’s-what, and as such the trends in conversation mirror those of the industry itself.

This year the words on everybody’s lips were “digital, digital, digital”, with some airtime given to “discoverability” (unless they were talking about erotica). Every hall boasted an electronic twist: from ebook solutions for publishers to digital classroom innovations resplendent in 3D. And metadata, Open Access programmes, social media, and Search Engine Optimisation were all discussed as technical solutions to aid the discoverability of content in a sea of lol-cats.

Of the panel discussions I attended the one that sits most clearly in my mind was tasked with the job of considering what lessons we’ve learnt after 10 years of mainstream digital publishing. Richard Charkin (of Bloomsbury) said “This industry has adapted remarkably… academic publishing is now 90% digital, with trade at 20% and rising quickly. What we have not done is adapt our printing systems to the new world”. Much of the remaining conversation was circumscribed by the fear that ebooks would see the end of their print cousins, with paperbacks crying out “et tu brute” at the last.

What resonated for me, however, was his call for the need to bridge the gap created between print and digital – one that is ever increasing in developing countries. This gap is especially apparent when considering situations such as the Limpopo textbook crisis earlier this year. Even where print textbooks are free, or where online resources are supposedly ubiquitous, accessing educational material can still be difficult. The decisions of big publishing houses to focus on either print media or digital perpetuate this gap, and this is where Charkin’s comment really hits home.

Over all of the various fair publications, the main coverage on Africa was in relation to the OUP and MacMillian corruption scandal – which had a multipage spread in The Bookseller – with a follow up by Stephen Tweed asserting that despite the “flawed systems” there are many reasons to continue to invest in African publishing. Textbooks and educational materials were highlighted as the most lucrative by far in the African market, but Tweed noted that “the biggest threat to local and international publishers is piracy and the illegal import of market-restricted titles, particularly tertiary books”. He called for a focus on digital and innovation in new and existing technology which “provides for the children living in the slums, as well as the emerging middle class”. This is exactly what Paperight has been aiming to achieve, and it’s great to find that industry opinions are in line with our own.

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