They might as well be selling vacuum cleaners in Frankfurt

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The Independent Culture

Banish any quaint notions of myopic gentlemen in tweeds peddling musty books under a tent. The Book Fair, held every year in the cavernous airport-style halls at the edge of Frankfurt's banking district, is the global hub of a booming industry, teeming with thousands of company reps who could just as easily be flogging vacuum cleaners.

Banish any quaint notions of myopic gentlemen in tweeds peddling musty books under a tent. The Book Fair, held every year in the cavernous airport-style halls at the edge of Frankfurt's banking district, is the global hub of a booming industry, teeming with thousands of company reps who could just as easily be flogging vacuum cleaners.

Writers do make a cameo appearance, because this kind of "product" needs a personal touch, but the real stars are the agents and deal-makers. The public is not even allowed in until the money-men have completed their transactions. When the punters arrive on Monday, in search of leftover volumes at half price, the real denizens of Frankfurt's 10 halls will be gone.

It says something about authors' relationships to the world's greatest book exchange that its most prominent guests this week had very little to do with the works being sold under their names. Leni Riefenstahl, former actress, maker of Nazi films and latterly photographer of naked Africans and fish, admitted that the first time she had seen "her" book was at Thursday's press conference.

Beate Uhse, ageing German queen of porn and sexual accessories, was also pushing a ghosted book. And did Boris Yeltsin, who made a brief appearance yesterday, really tap out his memoirs with his own fingers?

Nearly 7,000 publishers from 107 countries are jostling with one another for a lucrative contract that will transform a previously obscure scribbler into a millionaire overnight. This year it could be anyone with a plausible Harry Potter imitation, or someone cashing in on Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography. Wizards and Nazis are in. With the price of the originals already in the stratosphere, publishers are willing to lay out large sums on second bets.

Volumes have been written in recent years about the imminent demise of the printed word, but, on the ground, there is little evidence of that. There is a rather smug air in Frankfurt, fuelled by reports of dot.com failures and booming sales projections in the oldest medium. People are buying more books. What is more: children are buying more books. The US market, the world's most lucrative, is expanding by 5 per cent every year, and similar figures are being touted in Britain.

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