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25 October 2021

Frankfurt Book Fair 2021: Four key themes unveiled

I’m writing this as I look down over the main square at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Yes, I’m one of the few (brave or stupid, depending on your point of view) who ventured out this year to attend the much-loved event. You may hear that it was quiet and that is certainly true, with attendance down significantly over previous years. However, quiet is not always bad; quiet can give you an opportunity to have a deeper conversation, or to spot an opportunity that you might normally have skimmed past.

For me, there are a few themes coming out of the Fair this year.

Retro is in

The competition for the “Best Book Design from All Over the World 2021” (Stiftung Buchkunst) has some fantastic entries this year, but all of the winners have (in my opinion) a similar or related aesthetic: retro. The font selections, the colour-ways, the designs all seemed to step out of the 1970s. Perhaps we’re all looking into yesteryear for inspiration, since for the past 18 months we haven’t been able to meet in person!  Perhaps there has been so much change in the world that people are looking to the familiar, and seeing something new. 

People are on the move

I don’t think I’ve ever had so many conversations with people who have recently made a career change, or who are planning a career change, or who are still in the wishful-thinking stages. Most of them seem to be staying within the publishing industry, but I’ve spoken with literary agents who are thinking of retraining as editors, editors who are thinking of becoming sales reps, and sales reps who are interested in learning skills about production!

All of this is, of course, stirred up by the state of the world, and I can’t help but wonder if things will start to calm down a bit. And yet, isn’t it exciting? Seizing the opportunity to take stock of your life and professional situation, look at the options, and take some concrete steps in a new direction. Confession: I’ve done this myself in the past year, and I couldn’t be happier.

‘Transferable skills’ are out, ‘interoperable skills’ are in

Professional development has been using the phrase ‘transferable skills’ for ages. The earliest recorded usage that I could find comes from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1791; please correct me if I am wrong! And yet, that phrase implies a definitive shift or transfer, from point A to point B. 

Instead, what I’m sensing in the publishing world today is a requirement for ‘interoperable skills’, where you can take your skill with you from point A to point B, then back to point A, and jump over to point X, then Y, and the move diagonally into a different alphabet altogether. And (of course) you need to be able to do all of this simultaneously in your career, your side gig, your entrepreneurial work, your social media, your hobby, etc. 

People are no longer looking for skills or professional development opportunities that are limited to a single sphere. You might be a medical copywriter by day, but moonlighting as an entrepreneurial founder for a sustainable fashion marketplace. What skills are interoperable between those two spheres?  Gone are the days of learning a single skill, and then transferring that learning into a new practical situation; now it’s about existing in multiple situations simultaneously, and having an interoperable skill set that allows you to thrive and grow within each of those spheres.

It looks like I’m not the only one who read The Squiggly Career this year!

Blended is still awkward

Blended events, where some experiences occur in person, while others occur in the digital space, sound like a great way to meet the needs of a diverse audience. Unfortunately, (in my experience), I’m never in the right space for the events that I want to attend! I might physically be in Frankfurt, walking the halls, when I realise that the talk I was looking forward to is being hosted virtually. Then I find myself frantically looking for a table or spot to sit so I can log-on and watch remotely, only to find that my laptop battery is dead. 

As an event organiser, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, of course. But finding ways to enhance the digital and physical blend, rather than just occuring in adjacent space/times, would be ideal. 

Overall, I’m glad that I decided to come to Frankfurt this year. The Fair might be quieter than expected, but I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to have deeper and more meaningful conversations. And don’t forget the bretzels, the brats, and the bier…

Astrid deRidder

Astrid deRidder is Director of Content at FutureLearn and a board trustee of the Publishing Training Centre.

Connect with her on LinkedIn.