A Tale of Two Book Fairs

I apologize in advance for the long post, but I had a lot to say and share on this topic. I have tried to break it up with some photos, so hopefully that makes it more bearable.


Having made the decision over the last year to be more pro-active about pursuing my dream to translate more books (fiction and non-fiction), I figured it was time to visit one (or two) of the international trade book fairs. The two most logical and geographically fortuitous events to appear on my radar were the London Book Fair and the Frankfurter Buchmesse, so I vowed to try to go to both.

The London Book Fair (April 12 – 14, 2016)img_0499

Held in April this year, the London Book Fair (LBF) worked out well schedule-wise and logistically. I approached this event as a “reconnaissance” trip, to learn more about the publishing industry in Europe and the market for books translated from Dutch to English, as well as which publishers were relevant for my research. After sorting travel and accommodation, the real preparation could begin. I read up on Dutch publishers active (and successful) in selling foreign rights for Dutch books, started following publishers, authors and organizations on social media, and monitored the Dutch and Flemish literature foundation websites to see which books were being translated into English, and which publishers abroad were buying the foreign rights. According to the website, the fair would also offer a Literary Translation Centre for translators featuring presentations and other sessions of special interest for our profession.img_5077

Luckily, a good friend of mine who had previously worked for many years in various positions in publishing decided to go too, and she was a huge help in terms of insider info on book fairs, what to see, what to look for, what not to waste my time on, and how to approach publishers.

I wasn’t all that shocked to discover over the course of the two days I attended the fair that the publishers were not eager to speak to anyone other than agents, distributors or rights buyers visiting their stand. After all, they’re there to sell, not waste time and energy talking to hopeful translators. Still, I took advantage of the opportunity and gathered as much material as I could, including foreign rights catalogues and any stray business cards there for the taking.img_5083

Overall, I was rather disappointed in the meager presence of Dutch-language publishers exhibiting. Apart from a handful of primarily Flemish publishers, the Lowlands were conspicuous in their absence at the LBF. I expect this has to do with the cost of stands and exhibiting in general, or maybe the limited interest from the UK in Dutch-language books.

I did have one or two good conversations with exhibitors, but so far, nothing has really panned out. On a positive note, the Translation Centre and the sessions held there were interesting, as was the opportunity to meet other literary translators (established and aspiring) to talk about our craft and the market. Since I had viewed the whole trip as a learning experience from the outset, I can’t say it was a complete bust. There was the added bonus of course of being able to wander around London and spend time with my friend, which naturally made it a lot of fun.

this-is-what-we-shareThe Frankfurt Book Fair (October 19 – 23, 2016)

One of the things I learned at the LBF was that Frankfurt was a must. Known as the King of Book Fairs by many, at least on the continent, this was the fair I would definitely have to attend. Apart from being a short drive for me, this year the Netherlands and Flanders were the joint Guest of Honor in Frankfurt – for once, my timing was excellent! The last time the two countries shared this honor was in 1993, and presumably it would be at least as long before they would again, so it was now or never!

Interview with Kees van Beijnum

I also started preparing for the Frankfurter Buchmesse (or FBM for short), much earlier than I had for London. This included regularly visiting the websites of the Dutch and Flemish literature foundations to read up on authors, books and other interesting facts related to the fair. On a whim, I emailed the Flemish Literature Fund to see if they needed any help with translations or editing for the texts on their special Guest of Honor site, and lo and behold, they did! Thus began a six-month-long gig translating and occasionally editing whatever they had for me, be it bios of featured authors, info and news on books in translation, press releases, and of course the program of events to be held in their special pavilion and other Guest of Honor areas at the Messe. Considering my involvement in translating this documentation, it was essentially a given that I would attend the event to see all these wonderful exhibits, presentations and exhibitors with my own eyes.

Arriving in Frankfurt early Thursday afternoon, I quickly checked into my hotel, changed and scurried on over to the venue. Although I knew it would be enormous and overwhelming, nothing could prepare me for just how gigantic the fair was. How was I going to see everything I needed to see in the two days I had allocated to my fair visit? I had bought a trade ticket (highly recommended, and not expensive; not to be confused with a Business ticket, which is exorbitant and really for those in the publishing industry) as I wanted to avoid being there on the weekend when the Fair is open to the public. It was crucial to use my limited time wisely.

Like the LBF, the FBM also has a fantastic app that lets you organize your visit, choosing the exhibitors you want to see and events you want to attend, adding them to your favorites, giving you one tidy and accessible reference source to help you make the most of your visit. There are even reminders for the events you marked as favorites. I couldn’t imagine a visit to either fair without the app.

I decided that my first stop would be to the international hall where the majority of the Dutch and Flemish publishers and the delegations from the two literature foundations had their stands. There were also a couple presentations I wanted to see, so I planned accordingly.


After this initial exploration of the international hall, I went to check out the Pavilion and the outside area, or Agora, with its several quirky exhibits and interactive stands. The Pavilion was amazing; I can’t think of any other way to describe it. In line with the Guest of Honor theme, “This is What We Share”, the expansive, low-lit space was surrounded by a backdrop consisting of a sheer screen onto which scenes of a beach and coastline were projected, suggesting the North Sea coastline, which all three countries (including Germany) “share”. Spread out on the floor were reclining beach-style chairs where visitors could relax and recharge, soothed by the soft music or sounds of the sea playing in the background, and there were also glass display cases mounted in the floor containing objects collected by various writers, again in keeping with the theme. Laid out like a museum exhibit were other displays and information about the authors or illustrators featured in the Pavilion. Not only was it a great place to escape the busy beehive of the Fair proper, the Pavilion was also the location for the Theatre, where many presentations and interviews were held with authors.

Jessica Durlacher

One of these, and the highlight for me, was Jessica Durlacher’s “Tribute to Joost Zwagerman”, a presentation I had translated for the Flemish Literature Fund. Words fail me when it comes to describing the experience of watching this amazing writer present my translation of this very emotional tribute.

I spent that evening in my hotel room digesting it all, and planning my second and last day there. I knew I did not want to shuffle along with the crowds when the Fair opened to the public, likely seeing little and having no opportunity to speak to anyone at the stands. I really had to make the most of my remaining day there.

The second day was very productive, and I managed to see all the other stands I had on my list. While many people may think of a book fair as being exclusively for fiction, nothing could be farther from the truth. There are sections for children’s and YA (young adult) books, academic and scientific publications, history and politics, the arts, digital publishing and technological innovations, and so on and so forth. Book fairs are not just for established or aspiring literary translators; they offer so much for people working in many areas within our field. I am also interested in expanding my work in translations for the arts, and had a couple of fruitful chats with institutions in this field.

What I learned + a few tips

Beforehand: When it comes to events of this size and importance, preparation, introspection, and organization are everything! Think hard about what you want to get out of the fair, nail down the market you’re interested in exploring and even more importantly, the one in which you have a real shot at making inroads, and learn about the people and companies you want to speak to or whose stands you want to visit.

Which days: If you don’t mind crowds and you really just want to go to soak up the atmosphere and fondle some books, and a trip on weekdays is not feasible for you, the weekend is fine, when the fair is open to the public (and the admission fee is lower). I plan to go a couple days earlier next time, on the day the fair opens to the trade rather than two days later as I did this year. This way I can derive the maximum benefits from the thinner crowds and a higher level of enthusiasm on the exhibitors’ part (some of whom made no secret of the fact that they were dreading the weekend, and I even saw a few cleaning out their stands on Friday afternoon, clearing away everything that wasn’t nailed down, literally in many cases, before the masses descended on the Messe).

App: Get the app for the fair you plan to attend, and start using it as soon as you can! This is a valuable tool not only before and during the fair, but also afterwards as a reference and memory-jogger.

The FBM in 2017: Next year’s Guest of Honor is France, so if any of you work with French (or are even just a huge fan of French literature), I highly recommend signing up for mailing lists and regularly checking not only the FBM website but also those of any literature foundations or other organizations involved with the Guest of Honor events. Be sure to follow key figures and companies on social media if you are so inclined, as this is a great source of information and opportunity for networking before, during and after the event.

Don’t forget the follow-up! Equally as important as good pre-fair preparation is astute follow-up after the event. Keep those business cards, brochures and catalogues in a safe place, and make notes to remember what you discussed and any action you need to take after the Fair. Be sure to wait a few days after the Fair before bombarding people with emails; not only are they exhausted, but many might have to travel for days to get back home, and will probably be swamped with work on their return (or are taking a well-deserved few days off afterwards). You don’t want your email getting lost in the sea of all the others, or worse yet, deleted as spam!

Other recommendations: comfortable shoes! Not only will you probably be walking a lot, you will definitely be on your feet almost all day. And if you don’t have a business card, get one printed – you’ll need it.

Remember, this post addresses my own personal experiences with attending book fairs. I would love to hear yours if you have also been to any of these events, so feel free to add them in the comments below!

Useful links:

London Book Fair: http://www.londonbookfair.co.uk

Frankfurt Book Fair 2016: http://www.buchmesse.de/en/

Next year’s fair: http://www.buchmesse.de/en/fbf/

Netherlands/Belgium as Guest of Honor FBM2016: http://www.frankfurt2016.com/en

Nice read about hand-off ceremony and the Guest of Honor: http://publishingperspectives.com/2016/10/france-frankfurt-guest-of-honor-2017/#.WBCwwDJh1cA

Link to sites about book markets and events worldwide: http://www.book-fair.com/en/international/book_markets/

BIEF website for info on French market and events: http://www.bief.org/About-us.html

French Publishers’ Agency (rights for English translations of French books): http://www.frenchrights.com

Still here? If so….

I posted even more photos and updates on Twitter and Instagram if this has piqued your interest: @transl8tr. The hashtags for the fairs: #LBF and #fbm16.




4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Book Fairs

  1. Thanks for this account, Allison – having never been to this kind of event it’s really interesting to read about what was and was not relevant in terms of translation. Maybe next year – especially given the French connection – I might try the Frankfurt one myself!

    So the big question is, other than the learning experiences you described above, what did you actually get out of it in terms of potential or actual work?

    1. Hi Jane, thanks for your comments! You MUST go next year since France is the Guest of Honor! Get on the ICE and go! 🙂
      To answer your ‘big question’, I haven’t seen any concrete results yet, but made some really good contacts, with two organizations who said they were looking for Dutch to English translations (for their website and marketing purposes at any rate) so I’m hopeful about those. I also had a great conversation with the Dutch Literature Foundation about getting on their list of translators, which is the Golden Ticket since foreign publishers check that list regularly if they need translators.
      Please do keep me posted if you go to FBM next year! I plan to attend again, schedule willing.

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