BookBrunch | Are you ready for Frankfurt? An interview with Katja Böhne

The haze of panic-packing and binge reading in advance of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair has begun. This week, I caught up with the Fair’s own Katja Böhne to discuss what’s hot at Frankfurt in 2016. Read the whole piece over on BookBrunch, or get your teeth into the excerpt below.

Katya Boehne  Frankfurt.jpgIt’s that special time of year when the leaves are turning, the nights are drawing in – and every publisher in Europe is packing their suitcase for the Frankfurt Book Fair. As the opening draws near, I caught up with Katja Böhne, Head of Marketing and Communications at the Fair, to discuss what awaits visitors and exhibitors in 2016.

“It’s five minutes before the Fair and everything is a bit upside down. Juergen Boos [Fair director] said recently, ‘The homework is done, now the chaos begins!'” Böhne says with a laugh as soon as she picks up the phone. The line is clear and she speaks with a gentle accent in impeccable English. “Actually, everything is fine and on track, but there are still so many last minute ideas and things to do. Every year it’s the same, so it’s not unusual.”

For Böhne, work during Frankfurt Book Fair is concentrated and intense. “I’m in charge of marketing and communications,” she explains. “During the Fair it’s mostly the communication part because marketing has already done its job. Currently, we are preparing the press conferences and bigger meetings. Juergen Boos is giving a lot of speeches, which we’re in charge of writing, and the social media during the Fair is organised here in my team, so we’re trying to find influencers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Some of the VIPs are also quite something to organise and prepare in terms of logistics.”

Branching out with cultural content
One of those VIPs is the artist David Hockney, who is part of this year’s big new project The Arts-plus, which Böhne says everyone’s particularly excited about. The programme will take up a 2,000 sq m space within the Book Fair itself. With its own exhibitors, lab, salon space, runway stage, café and gin bar, it will bring together traditional book publishers with organisations from across the creative industries to discuss and showcase the world of cultural content.

“It’s quite surprising that Frankfurt Book Fair is doing a project like this, but this time it’s not about books and literature, it’s about our skills as a licence and trade organiser,” Böhne says. “We’ve been organising the Literary Agents and Scouts Centre [LitAg] for decades now and we’re quite well trained in organising trade locations for people. When we talked to our design and art books publishers, we became aware that there were huge changes going on. What happened formerly to music and book publishing is now happening in the creative industries sector. Everything that is art and creative, intellectual property is now being digitised. As soon as it is digitised, it becomes a tradeable good.”

Many museums, including Arts-plus exhibitor The Museum of Modern Art in New York, are now digitising their archives, for example, but this brings up questions about their business strategies and intellectual property rights: how will museums charge visitors? Can visitors buy digital copies and downloads of artworks? If so, is it legal for them to print them out onto t-shirts?

“From our perspective, we are at the beginning of a huge change and we want to be the ones who organise the trade with creative intellectual property,” says Böhne. “The Arts-plus is a fair within the Fair! There will be a conference which Jeff Jarvis will attend and digital art galleries from artists including Julia Stoschek. This is also where David Hockney comes in, because he’s an artist who did a lot of ‘traditional’ paintings, then one day he decided to paint on his iPad and the paintings looked exactly the same, but they were no longer unique. He did an art series of digital work, which he could sell. Questions regarding exactly that will be discussed in this art space. It’s really exciting, totally new, and really worth having a look at.”

More political
“My favourite part about organising the Fair is meeting interesting people who have an artist’s or intellectual vision on things,” Böhne enthuses. “The infrastructure is amazing as well: people are really trying to create something new every year and it’s a great experience being part of all that.”

Last year, the Fair’s big push was to be “more vibrant, more dynamic and more international”, a theme that has continued to resonate into 2016. “The political situation has been tense in recent years throughout Europe,” Böhne reflects. “You know in the UK exactly what I’m talking about: there has been a lot of discussion and friction and questioning about what is going to happen.”

At Frankfurt, this has lead to organisational issues across the years, with questions about whether certain countries will show up. “Last year some Swiss publishers didn’t show up because the Swiss franc was delinked from the euro, and this caused a lot of financial insecurities, let’s say,” she explains. “In the last few years we have had some problems, but it looks like everyone will be coming back in 2016 and I think everything is OK. Still, with the political changes in recent years, I think political issues and freedom of publishing have become much more relevant again. The Fair is becoming much more political again, as it was seven years ago when I first started.”

This year, the political issues include the recent EU Referendum here in the UK. “We were a little afraid in the beginning that the EU Referendum would affect us, and things have become more difficult, but so far nobody has cancelled,” Böhne says. “Even so, let’s wait, because nobody knows what the exact schedule for Brexit will be, and I think as soon as we know that, people will begin to react to it. Personally, we were very sad about Brexit because we think Europe is a project worth working on, but we hope that UK publishing will stay a hugely relevant part of international publishing and maintain the same role as it does right now. The UK is one of our most important markets, not just for international publishing, but also for us as Frankfurt Book Fair.”

This year, there have been more challenges around security than usual, especially after last week’s announcement that the Kings of both the Netherlands and Belgium, this year’s Guest of Honour partner countries, will be attending. “It’s an amazing opportunity for us, but also a big challenge because the protocol is huge! As far as I can remember, we haven’t had kings here so far, so it’s fantastic that the Guest of Honour partners have been able to arrange this.”

Frankfurt Book Fair doesn’t simply encourage internationalism in Europe, however, but round the world. Having welcomed large numbers of refugees into the country over the past couple of years, the government is now working to integrate them into Germany, a process that will be represented at the Fair. “We have a long-lasting project called LitCam, which is our literacy campaign,” Böhne explains. It has been running for over a decade now, beginning by building reading rooms in South Africa. “Now LitCam has started a programme called Books Say Welcome and they’re all over Germany and Frankfurt, supporting projects integrating young immigrants and helping them learn the language and read and so on.” LitCam has a stand in Hall 3.1, hosting discussions about how to achieve integration, as well as talks from the young immigrants, showing what they’ve done and what their plans are.

Taking an even wider global view, the publishing industry is constantly expanding into new markets, and Frankfurt has adapted to this development. “There are other regions where publishing is very dynamic these days,” says Böhne. “We have offices throughout the world: in New Delhi, Beijing, Moscow, Sao Paulo, New York… We try to establish collaborations.”

Among the Fair’s international projects are StoryDrive conferences, which aim to highlight not just the importance of stories, but the heroes behind them as well, from publishers and developers to booksellers and marketeers. Previously, the Beijing International Book Fair hosted the conference; this year it’s Singapore. “We’re aiming to create some impact with StoryDrive,” Böhne says. “The knowledge of the industry that Frankfurt Book Fair has is quite ahead of these markets and we would like to share it with others…” [READ MORE]