The Frankfurt Book Fair - The World's Biggest, Oldest Book Event

Employee arranging a book display at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

 Hannelore Foerster / Getty Images 

With a 500-year-old history, the Frankfurt Book Fair of today is acknowledged to be the world's largest book fair, attracting a global audience of book publishing industry professionals and a total of more than a quarter of a million visitors each year.

About the Frankfurt Book Fair

The Frankfurt Book Fair is held in Frankfurt, Germany where it is known as Frankfurter Buchmesse. The event takes place at the Frankfurter Messe, a complex of buildings with nearly four million square feet of indoor exhibit space.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is held every year in October. In a typical year, the fair hosts more than 7,300 exhibitors from 100 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe. Around 300,000 visitors will attend the event, and over 10,000 journalists will cover it. Unlike the United States' largest book fair, BookExpo America (BEA), the Frankfurt Book Fair opens its doors to the general public on the last two days of the fair.

For the American book publishing industry, the Frankfurt Book Fair is predominantly a trade fair, that is, a professional meeting place for publishers, editors, librarians, book subsidiary rights managers, publishers' international sales representatives, booksellers, agents, film, television and video game producers, publishing technology experts, authors, and many others who are involved in the creation and sale of books and the licensing of book content in all its many forms. The Frankfurt Book Fair has typically been a critical event for the buying and selling of subsidiary rights—reprint rights for foreign editions, movie and TV rights, paperback rights, etc.

The History of the Frankfurt Book Fair

The first book fair was held in Frankfurt not many years after the first book came off of Gutenberg's printing press in Mainz, just spitting distance away. For centuries, the city of Frankfurt has been a center of banking and commerce in Europe and references to the Frankfurter Messe date back to 1150. According to some sources, book trade fairs have been held in Frankfurt since 1478 and have long been of international importance. In his book, The History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, author Peter Weidhaas (a former director of the fair, from 1975 - 2000), writes that King Henry VIII sent Sir Thomas Bodley as his personal emissary to the Frankfurt Book Fair to purchase books for the new library at Oxford University.

But the book publishing trade in Frankfurt began to be hampered by the Catholic Counter-Reformation religious movement when censorship was"...institutionalized in the form of the Index of Forbidden Books [and] volumes of literature were now deemed inappropriate for public consumption." By the mid-seventeenth century, Frankfurter Messe's preeminence as the center of the book publishing trade had faded as the Protestant-dominated city of Leipzig rose to be the center of the book industry.

Frankfurt renewed its illustrious book fair history in September of 1949 when 205 German exhibitors held the first post-World War II book fair. Since then, the Frankfurt Book Fair has grown to the huge international publishing event it is today.

Features of the Frankfurt Book Fair Present...and Future

The Frankfurt Book Fair covers a huge breadth of book publishing interests. In addition to encompassing trade publishing, the fair features every type of publishing from a large component of educational and academic publishers looks back to books past, in their antiquarian bookseller's area. The event offers educational seminars on new, cutting-edge developments in self-publishing, electronic publishing and how social media affects publishing.

As new technology-driven book platforms, storytelling methods, and their attendant business models emerge, the negotiation of content rights is ever more important. The fair acknowledges this with Frankfurt SPARKS, the Digital Initiative of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Frankfurt SPARKS was conceived not only as a marketplace for media rights and multi-sector co-productions, and a place to view trends, but offers master classes and intensive training for a successful cross- and transmedia business.​