Was the Frankfurt Book Fair only about “Waffeleisen” – odd stories about e-Book neverland
October 20, 2008 by ruediger

So what was the news at Frankfurt?

Funny question. No clear answer.

Someone at the show told me that there were “no  great books”. But this is the refrain almost every year – and has little to say about the after effects of the show. Someone entirely unconnected to the trade mentioned this “scandal about a Czech or Slovakian writer” – the revelation that Czech Ă©migrĂ© Milan Kundera had betrayed someone to the secret police at his early career. Which says a lot about how every book related story still gravitates around Frankfurt – including many more other stories that one could mention, including a lot of alleged “Frankfurt related” subsidiary rights deals which, in reality, have already happened, independently of the show, weeks and even months earlier.

Personally, I was a bit disappointed about the reporting on e-Books. The usually well informed “Die Zeit” of Hamburg ran a simply dull and lukewarm story about the subject, and the most notable thing about it (not according to me, but to a school friend who is not in publishing, but in banking!) is the use of the word “Waffeleisen” in the article.

I have to get technical here: “Waffeleisen” is the term for the iron mould to properly bake a Belgium “gaufre”(or waffle, for real cooking afficionados). In the Die Zeit piece, that related to the not really sexy Kindle design of Amazon’s e-reader.

Well, granted. But if all that was exploding left and right of our ears and noses over the past 8 months or so is about some awkward design, sorry, some of the media just did not get it.

  • Here are the good questions:

When will the Kindle be available in Germany, and other European countries, and how will they solve the deadlock about those possible downloads of books by one or the other phone networks? Amazon already postponed the UK release. I did not have time to google for the rest of Europe. But hey, what is e-Books, if you just can’t buy and use them? Would have been a good question for European reporters, right?

Entering “kindle” as a query at Amazon’s German site produces only a list topped by a Kindle charger (at 22.95 Euros, or 30$), while on Amazon’s US site, of course, we get an offer for the reading device at $ 359)

  • Question 01: Why wouldn’t European journalists ask the simple question: If the e-Book is imminent, when can we buy it?

I happened to moderate a panel with a few eminent European experts on the matter, Piero Atanasio of the Italian Publishers Association, Mark Bide of Rightscom, and Simon Juden of the British Publishers Association, and we were all clear about a few issues: E-Books are really taking off with considerable power (not due to some gadgets, but the concept of reading on screens, and hence distributing onto screens),  this will be a changing moment for the (publishing and bookselling) industry, yet we modestly acknowledged that predictions are pretty hard to make on how this will occur, and at what intervals (the audience was pretty packed and even stayed for one hour);

  • Question 02:  Why did hardly any professional journalist bother to research any of this?

The “financial crisis” – or “fc” as one may be induced to call it by now – was of course a side topic in all conversations at Frankfurt. But not one soul addressed the issue of how much cost can be saved by eliminating (a) printing and (b) distribution from a book’s cost sheet or a publishing company’s business model. Calibrate this with the inconveniences of reading on a screen and you know why at least some people are really curious about e-things.

But this also reveals what is short: This new e-something is NOT driven by the wish to innovate!

  • Question 03: Why did that not be prevalent in, at least, the conversations at the floor (not at the parties) – or have I talked  to the wrong people in Frankfurt?

Here is some hidden intelligence: The financial officers tend not to be at book fairs. But they usually compare their notes from reading the clippings of the press with their spreadsheets.

Conclusion: Frankfurt as always was superb. But keep reading between the lines, and be careful of who you are listening.

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