Business, Numbers, Money, People – Back from Frankfurt


Huge, busy, non-stop and a little bit manic were my impressions of my first visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair! As a Librarian I have attended quite a few conferences/trade fairs throughout my career, but none on the scale of Frankfurt. I had taken some good pointers and advice from experienced Frankfurt visitors, but even so I was unprepared for how many halls, exhibitors and visitors there were and how Frankfurt itself was taken over as a city by the event.

A colleague from the publishing sector imparted some sound advice to me before leaving for Frankfurt: pack a good pair of shoes; this was very sound advice indeed.   If I had been measuring distances I am sure I would have covered 10k over the two days.

The purpose of our visit was three-fold.  Firstly to hold a range of meetings with current partners and suppliers we are working with on the supply of e-textbooks to our students.  Secondly to meet potential new partners and build relationships with them. Thirdly, through attending various networking events, talks and through informal conversations with exhibitors, to widen our understanding and knowledge of the environment publishers work and do business in.

This third aspect was particularly interesting because what was evident at essentially a trade conference, where few librarian customers attend, was how debates and discussions are framed.  Perhaps understandably the major focus being the bottom line i.e. income and profit streams.

Hence discussions of “hot topics” such as Open Access, MOOC’s, Open Educational Resources often focused more on the threats these posed to publishers, as they can offer free or cheaper access to some of the very product lines they themselves are pushing.  At library conferences there is often a more nuanced conversation on these topics, but at this B2B trade fair, there was less of this and indeed less need for this.  How can we maintain and increase our sales is the bottom line!

This is not necessarily a criticism, but does shed light on why new products are often developed, especially new editions of textbooks or new journal titles, when feedback from many of our academics is that there are too many titles already!  Librarians whose major motivation is often what they perceive as the public good (or that of their students) can be slow to comprehend this publisher perspective.

The other thing that struck me was how large the academic publishing and scholarly communications sectors actually are and really how so many of the companies and institutions exhibiting and speaking rely on researchers and academics.   A whole publishing infrastructure is reliant on the outputs of these researchers either through dissemination or analysis of their work in a myriad of ways.  I suspect many of the academics themselves are oblivious of all this activity emanating from their own work and how many jobs and livelihoods emanate from this.  Without the researchers nothing else would exist!

We left Frankfurt much the wiser and much fatigued reflecting on what a different experience it was to a usual library related conference and with a far greater insight into how publishers operate.

Dominic Broadhurst, University of Manchester

photo credit: Takahiro Kyono via flickr (license)

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