Book Berlin 2018: Chilling air of commerce

Written by Eassa Saggak, CNN

Who owns what? Who controls what? Who can sell what?

While such questions may still seem esoteric or academic, the major book fair in Berlin this week is asking the tough questions and drawing thousands of readers in for answers.

From today until Thursday, over 1,600 retailers and agents are gathering at the vast exhibition space of the Berlin exhibition center, Messe Berlin, for Book Berlin. In addition to the latest titles in the B-town, the fair attracts thousands of avid readers who want to satisfy their thirst for information, discovery and discussion.

Throughout the week, an assortment of booksellers in traditional store clothing, each with a print of their own company logo on the facade, will be selling and displaying products ranging from literature and classic culture to photography, architecture and home decor. In the central children’s section at the annual fair, hundreds of children — some dressed as princes and princesses — crowd around the stalls of young authors.

Newcomers’ areas, dedicated to European, Asian and American publishing, are similarly bustling. Publishing on the other side of the world is a feature of Book Berlin this year, with 25 countries represented. In the Asian sector, as well as literature from Asia, the American section has also grown.

“Currently, the US is responsible for half of all printed books sold worldwide,” said Margo Elslin, assistant director of digital issues at Rizzoli, publisher of books, manuscripts and electronic resources. In recent years, digital activities have remained high on the agenda for the publishing industry. Books in a digital space, the book industry believes, helps drive overall sales and attract new markets. “We have to look at the ‘new normal’ that exists and work at it,” Elslin said.

Describing his book, “Extract from My Heaven: A US Open Draft,” which focuses on the US Open tennis tournament, Imelda Bacher, chief product officer at Rodale, described using digital technologies in a “fun way.”

USA Today web editor Caitlin Bales expressed her admiration for Book Berlin. “It’s hip, new, free and highly stimulating,” she said. “There are so many cool people there: young interns, authors, scientists, journalists, authors, authors, authors.” The buzzing atmosphere is clearly key to get readers into the groove.

Outside of the crowded areas, talks will offer a more accessible experience.

“It’s very engaging,” said Jamie Stahlmann, publishing director of The Book People, a Canadian publisher. His company’s flagship talk at Book Berlin, with economist Kamran Afshar, offers a “thorough” overview of the digital debate in the publishing world.

At first glance, it seems surprising that the book publishing world is also hyper-digitized, which is contributing to the general question of who or what is the owner of the digital rights of the novel, along with how the publishing industry can maximize the size of its network.

“In the publishing industry, it is very unreliable to be successful if a book has a big following among its followers,” Stahlmann said. “For example, a first novel may sell many copies but if people don’t find out about it, it doesn’t matter.”

Indeed, getting sales figures is a complex problem that requires a highly organized, unified approach.

“For the love of books,” said Stahlmann, “I’d rather be successful with the trade than make the fan pages that might sell more books.”

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