The Frankfurt Book Fair

Tomorrow the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair opens its doors to publishing folk from around the world. For five days publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, film producers, rights managers, publishing technology specialists, and an occasional wild-eyed author will celebrate the High Holy Days of the international publishing world. Deals will be made. Buzz will be generated. Subsidiary rights will be sold. And the written word will be celebrated in all its guises, because no one works in publishing who doesn’t love books.

In the midst of all the focus on new books and new media, I hope one or two pause to remember that Frankfurt was one of Europe’s most important book markets in the days when moveable type was a hot new technology and people went to book fairs to buy actual books.

In some ways, Frankfurt was an unlikely place for a major book fair to thrive. The city had no university and was not one of the major printing centers. It had one thing going for it that was more important than either scholars or printers: location, location, location. Positioned on major trade routes, at the junction of the River Main and the Rhine, Frankfurt was almost equidistant from Lübeck, Venice, Vienna, Lyon, Paris, Antwerp, and Amsterdam.* By the thirteenth century, Frankfurt am Main was home to a thriving trade fair, held twice a year in the spring and the fall. By 1574, one visitor, Henri Estienne II described it as “the sum of all the fairs of the whole world.” Merchants sold cloth from Augsburg, metal goods from Nuremberg, Rhenish wine and Westphalian hams, dried fish, hops and furs from the north, glass from Bohemia, silver and pewter from Saxony. Horses, weapons, pottery, and spices. Not to mention books.

Manuscripts were bought and sold at the Frankfurt fairs as early as the fourteenth century. Printed books found their way to Frankfurt by 1462**; by 1488, printers and publishers accounted for one-twelfth of the stalls at the fair. The fair quickly became a magnet for the book trade, drawing not only printers, but booksellers, paper merchants, type founders, and bookbinders from all over Europe. Scholars came in search of new or rare books. Authors came to meet printers***–and each other. At its height, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Frankfurt was central to the distribution of books across Europe.

In the eighteenth century, the Frankfurt book fair faded, due to pressures from Catholic censorship, the Thirty Years’ War, and competition from Leipzig. By 1764, the old Frankfurt book fair was effectively dead. The modern Frankfurt Book Fair was born almost 200 years later in 1949. Since then, the fair has grown from 205 exhibitors to thousands of exhibitors and hundreds of thousands of visitors.

* As anyone who’s gotten carried away at a used book store knows, books are heavy. Water transport made it easier to ship books to the annual fair.

**Just to give you some context: Gutenberg printed his first bible in 1455.

***Some things don’t change.

(This post is brought to you with thanks to Alison Taylor-Brown, who first brought the link between the old and new book fairs to my attention.)


  1. Priyanka on January 18, 2017 at 9:09 am

    Hi Pamela,

    Thank you for this post. I was trying to find something about the origins of Book Fairs around the world while researching for my article on Delhi Book Fair. I always knew that Frankfurt Book Fair was the pioneer but never knew that it went so back into the history. Thanks again for the piece.

    • pamela on January 18, 2017 at 5:53 pm

      Dear Priyanka: Glad to help! I’d love to know more about the Delhi Book Fair. Please send me a link when your article is available.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.