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December 31, 2017


In October, I took part in the world’s biggest publishing event: the Frankfurt Book Fair. Nearly 7,000 publishers exhibited and 300,000 people visited last year, but numbers aside, it’s hard to imagine the scale of the Fair without seeing it for yourself. Its history stretches back to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, when local booksellers held the first event in 1454 to show off the strange new phenomenon of books produced not by hand, but on machines, using moveable type. Over the following 500-odd years, the Frankfurt Book Fair developed into an unrivalled centre of trendsetting, innovation and professionalism.

Every year, organisers select a focus of interest or guest of honour, with an entire pavilion devoted to promoting the literature and writers of the country or topic of the year. The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is awarded and important initiatives on writing, literacy and international literature are launched. This year’s guest of honour was France; Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel graced the opening ceremony. It was astounding to think that two of the world’s most powerful leaders took time out to attend the opening of a book fair, but then that’s the power of the ‘Buchemesse’.

I had long dreamed of visiting the Fair, even though it’s not the same as a literary festival, where authors are the stars. At Frankfurt, publishers and agents do the work, with separate days for trade visitors and ordinary folk and the occasional celebrity author appearance to keep the crowds enthusiastic. Still, when the Goethe-Institut invited me to participate, I couldn’t help feeling like Charlie Bucket winning a Golden Ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. At last I’d get to see the internal machine that powers the worldwide business of publishing and meet people from other countries who were connected to it.

I’d been asked to speak on two important topics: youth using graffiti, street art and other creative means to fight despotism in the first panel; blasphemy and freedom of expression in the second. I prepared diligently, but on my first day I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. This was no longer the comfort zone of the Karachi Literature Festival; this was the world stage. Did I really belong on it? Perusing the brochure of events online gave me another jolt of anxiety: the place was so big, what would I do? Where would I go? What if I got lost?

But the entire city seemed primed for the Buchemesse with an endless stream of people in business attire walking in the direction of the exhibition hall throughout the day, all hotels booked and room rates at triple the price, and advertisements for the Fair in newspapers, on buses and all over the internet. I clutched my exhibition tickets and my handbag and joined the crowd, hoping I would be magically taken to the right place: the Goethe-Institut stand in one of the cavernous halls. So what if I were a relatively unknown author from an under-represented country? My job would be to investigate, explore and report back.

Entering the exhibition grounds was like going into a huge airport; my ticket was scanned, my baggage checked. There were 11 halls interconnected by escalators, elevators and moving walkways. Outdoors, a bus shuttle moved between the main entrance to various points in the Festhalle. A courtyard filled with sound stages, food and beverage carts, and outdoor activities provided food and entertainment for the visitors. Pulsing music and scores of people dressed as comic book characters provided colour.

Though I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the entire enterprise, it was impossible to get lost as long as you knew the hall, alphabetical zone and number of the stall you wanted to reach. I walked and walked, repeating the phrase “Hall 5, Zone F, Stall 32” like a mantra. It would have been all too easy to be distracted by the treasures on either side: stalls filled with books and every other product related to publishing imaginable: prints, posters, digital tools, screens, music, magazines, art supplies — it went on for miles. I finally found my hosts, but with a few hours to go until my own panel, I walked around and took in as much as I could.

At small tables dotted around coffee and sandwich centres, agents and publishers negotiated rights for the next big bestseller, the next superstar author.

There was so much to see, to explore. At small tables dotted around coffee and sandwich centres, agents and publishers negotiated rights for the next big bestseller, the next superstar author. A crowd gathered for a sighting of a German rock star from the ’80s that I’d never heard of, who turned up in snakeskin, leather and a bowler hat. Red-carpeted discussion corners hosted panels where writers, journalists and industry experts debated the pressing issues of the day.

At one event, members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party clashed with left-wing protestors. “That’s not usual for the Book Fair,” a co-panellist told me, looking Germanically shocked at this departure from form, but it made me feel completely at home. My own panels went extremely well, especially the second, a discussion on how the issue of freedom of expression had been hampered by the issue of blasphemy in so many religious-minded countries. No conclusions were drawn, but a healthy airing of views and my appearance as a writer from an Islamic country made for a lively and engaged discussion.

Although I only spent two days at the Fair, I left Frankfurt with my mind completely stimulated and my body completely exhausted — on my two visits to the Buchemesse, I walked seven kilometres a day. I could have camped out at the Festhalle for the entire week and still not have seen everything on offer. Every writer should learn as much as they can about publishing to understand the myriad decisions it takes just to get your book on the shelves. At Frankfurt, I learned that while writing is a vocation and an art, publishing is entirely a business, and the tension between the two fields drives the industry’s highs and lows. But I’m still not sure whether it was comforting or frightening for me as a writer to learn how much money is at stake, and how many professionals are devoted to making the machine run.

The columnist is a Karachi-based author of six books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 31st, 2017