Kaffeepause mit…Lars Birken-Bertsch, Director Strategic Project Development, Cooperation & Programme at the Frankfurter Buchmesse

We caught up with Lars Birken-Bertsch to hear first-hand about how the much-loved fixture in the book trade calendar has fared during the pandemic, as well as what plans are for 2021 and beyond. Read on...

Lars, hello. Your job title at Frankfurter Buchmesse is Director Strategic Project Development. What does this role entail?

Hello Sarah, well, to keep it brief, it’s all about developing ideas, initiatives and activities with the goal of making each year’s Frankfurter Buchmesse the best one yet. Developing strategic projects also entails keeping track of the book market and its requirements. As the word “development” already suggests, it’s all about change, exchange and creating something new. So as you can tell, it never gets boring!

It’s a role that must have adapted and changed quite drastically since Spring 2020? And in an organisation tackling huge and urgent questions about how to respond to the pandemic, as well as about what business might look like in the coming years.

Not only has my role changed since last Spring, my job title has too. Last year I was Director Strategic Business Development and now I’m Director Strategic Project Development, Cooperation & Programme. The change of title shows that collaborations and partnerships are now playing a much more important role in our strategy. It is part of my job to identify the constantly changing role of the Frankfurter Buchmesse and the only way to do this is to involve key market players in the conversation. I’m keen to see what the future holds, but for now Frankfurter Buchmesse is and will continue to be a place of encounter and exchange, both online and offline.

What does a typical day look like as we emerge from lockdown?

I can ride my bike to work again! The change of location helps me to create more structure in my life. I really missed that when we had to work from home. Apart from that, it’s the same old routine: turning on the computer and getting down to work. Also, I really enjoy being able to visit literature festivals. My longing for literary input and exchange can finally be satisfied.

Do you liaise much with colleagues at other book fairs nationally, in Europe and beyond? Has this helped during the pandemic?

Sure! It helped a lot since we had – and still have – similar issues to deal with. We support one another. This was one of the main things that helped us all stay positive during the pandemic.

What did you miss most about attending the Frankfurter Buchmesse in person?

The truth is, it’s all about meeting people and exchanging ideas. And that’s what I missed most: encountering likeminded people within the book bubble, chance meetings with interesting characters at the next publishing stand that turn into deep, unplanned, conversations about books. This is exactly what I’m looking forward to this October at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, when the book and media industry will be reconnecting. In-person encounters generate unexpected business opportunities, surprising moments and innovative ideas – all of which make Frankfurter Buchmesse the central meeting point for the global publishing community.

We have seen some of the upsides of online working – not least the removal (to some extent) of location or the ability to travel as a barrier to participation in events. What were some of your highlights of the online Fair in 2020? Which of these elements might you retain going forward?

Yes, we did for sure. Please don’t take my last answer the wrong way – the digital side of events is indispensable now. For the Buchmesse in 2020, we developed the new interactive event The Hof, which I hugely enjoyed. And, as I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, we’ve retained the format. That way people who can’t make it to Frankfurter Buchmesse can still be part of it.  I recommend dropping in on one of this year’s The Hof networking sessions, where the global publishing community will meet at the virtual bar, hear some live music, listen to interviews together and meet potential new business partners in breakout sessions.

Another of last year’s highlights for me was the Frankfurt Conference, our first ever digital conference. Each of the four days (12-15 October 2020) focused on a different area of publishing, and provided some really interesting insights. This year’s trade visitor programme will also include the Frankfurt Conference – I’m looking forward to it.

And of course, the $64,000 question! What is the Frankfurter Buchmesse planning for 2021?

There’s a lot going on. Our preparations for the hybrid programme are well underway. Together with media partners ARD, ZDF, DER SPIEGEL, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and lots of other organisations, we’re planning a combination of on-site events broadcast live, events in the city of Frankfurt, and digital events. In addition, we are working with ARD and numerous distribution partners to develop a digital strategy for increasing the reach and visibility of the Buchmesse. As I said earlier, the Frankfurt Conference and the networking event The Hof will once again be running for trade visitors. New this year will be our Master Classes: intensive one-hour sessions looking at best practice and providing ample opportunity for discussion.

How did you decide all this?

Our main goal is to reconnect the book and media world whilst working within the constraints of the pandemic. So we’re offering something both for those who are still stuck at home and for those who are able to travel again: a digital and a physical programme. We want to ensure that everyone on the exhibition grounds is safe and secure at all times, so we’ve worked with experts to develop a health and safety plan.

And what does the longer term look like for the Frankfurter Buchmesse?

The pandemic taught us that there is no strategy or concept that can be valid for eternity. We have to move with the times. Requirements and expectations change quickly and organising a major event against this backdrop is a constant challenge. Social developments mean change comes around more often and more quickly. Events-wise the digital world is intertwined with the physical world. Hybrid formats will certainly be a part of our future.

You began your career as a bookseller. How has this experience shaped your approach to the role?

On the one hand booksellers observe their customers, they keep an eye on what interests them, which books they enjoy the most. Booksellers need to have a passive understanding of what customers like and want. On the other hand, booksellers also have an active role to play, recommending and discussing authors and content. Their main focus is always the book itself, a tactile and physical object, in contrast to my job at the fair. My focus is the event, the celebration of books and literature. But my approach towards customers has always remained the same.

You’ve also worked extensively within publishing houses, not least as founder of Blumenbar Verlag. What do you think is the most important aspect of marketing fiction in translation? How can New Books in German – and others like us – get more editors and readers engaged with the books we champion?

It is important to feel passionate about the books and translation rights you want to promote. Translations are important to help us transcend language barriers and explore another world view or culture, even if we can’t speak its languages. This broadening of horizons is greatly needed. New Books in German plays an important role, since the promotion of translation services is central to the diversity of publishing and to multilateral exchange across borders.

Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtful answers. We will see you in October!

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